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Garcia v. Casey

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

August 1, 2019

MEGAN GARCIA, Plaintiff,
v.
PAMELA CASEY, SCOTT GILLILAND, SUE ASHWORTH, and BRIAN K. RATLIFF, Defendants. VICTOR REVILL, Plaintiff,
v.
PAMELA CASEY, SCOTT GILLILAND, SUE ASHWORTH, and BRIAN K. RATLIFF, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the court on Defendants Pamela Casey and Scott Gilliland's motions to dismiss. (Garcia Doc. 25; Revill Doc. 2).[1]

         This consolidated action stems from the events of February 23, 2017. Plaintiffs Megan Garcia and Victor Revill, both lawyers, were representing a client, Lloyd Edwards, in state court to oppose a protection from abuse order sought by Mr. Edwards's wife. Mr. Edwards handed over two cell phones to Ms. Garcia that Plaintiffs believed may contain relevant information regarding the protection from abuse proceedings. Outside the courthouse steps, two Blount County sheriff deputies-Sue Ashworth and Brian K. Ratliff-presented a warrant to search Mr. Edwards. After the search, Deputy Ashworth demanded that Ms. Garcia hand over Mr. Edwards's two cell phones.

         When Ms. Garcia refused, Deputy Ashworth called Pamela Casey, the Blount County District Attorney, who allegedly instructed Deputy Ashworth to arrest Ms. Garcia and Mr. Revill for obstructing a government investigation. Deputy Ashworth and Deputy Ratliff proceeded to handcuff and arrest Plaintiffs. While still outside the courthouse, Scott Gilliland, a Blount County Assistant District Attorney, exited the courthouse and made a statement in front of onlookers that Plaintiffs were knowingly in possession of child pornography.

         Subsequently, Ms. Garcia and Mr. Revill each filed separate cases against Ms. Casey, Mr. Gilliland, Deputy Ashworth, and Deputy Ratliff, mainly raising claims under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

         Ms. Casey and Mr. Gilliland jointly filed motions to dismiss in both cases.[2] The motions are nearly identical, each raising similar immunity arguments to support dismissal. Specifically, in the motion to dismiss Mr. Revill's case, they raised absolute prosecutorial immunity, qualified immunity, and state-agent immunity. (Revill Doc. 2). In the motion to dismiss Ms. Garcia's case, they raised absolute prosecutorial immunity, qualified immunity, state-agent immunity, judicial or quasi-judicial immunity, and sovereign immunity. (Garcia Doc. 25). Both motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for review.

         On July 1, 2019, this court consolidated the two cases because of the multiple common issues of law and fact. (Revill Doc. 26). So, the court will now consider both motions together because they both raise the same issues of immunity, with the exception of judicial or quasi-judicial immunity and sovereign immunity, which are only raised in Ms. Garcia's case.

         I. Background

         On February 23, 2017, Ms. Garcia and Mr. Revill were representing their client, Mr. Edwards, in Blount County state court to oppose a protection from abuse order sought by Mr. Edwards's wife. Before the hearing, Mr. Edwards told his attorneys that he received explicit pictures and videos from his wife after she filed for protection from abuse. After the hearing, Mr. Edwards handed two cell phones, which were no longer in service, containing the pictures and videos to Ms. Garcia so she and Mr. Revill could retrieve the images and texts sent by Mr. Edwards's wife. Ms. Garcia put both phones in her satchel.

         After Ms. Garcia, Mr. Revill, and Mr. Edwards left the courthouse, Sue Ashworth and Brian K. Ratliff, both Blount County deputy sheriffs, confronted Ms. Garcia, Mr. Revill, and Mr. Edwards with a warrant to search Mr. Edwards's person and vehicle. Mr. Revill reviewed the warrant, then instructed Mr. Edwards to consent to the search. After searching Mr. Edwards and his car, Deputy Ashworth demanded that Mr. Revill produce the two cell phones. Mr. Revill did not consent because the search warrant did not extend to Ms. Garcia or her satchel. Deputy Ashworth and Deputy Ratliff did not speak to Ms. Garcia.

         Deputy Ashworth then told Mr. Revill that she would detain him and Ms. Garcia until she and Deputy Ratliff could “determine the next course of action.” (Garcia Doc. 18 at 4). Deputy Ashworth then allegedly called Pamela Casey, the Blount County District Attorney, and/or Mr. Gilliland, a Blount County Assistant District Attorney. Deputy Ashworth explained that she saw Mr. Edwards hand the phones to his attorneys. After that phone call, Deputy Ashworth told Mr. Revill that “we either need the phone out of the satchel or we will have to detain you and get a search warrant to get the phone.” (Id.).

         Deputy Ashworth then made another call, allegedly to Ms. Casey. Plaintiffs believe that Ms. Casey instructed Deputy Ashworth to arrest Ms. Garcia and Mr. Revill because immediately following the call, Deputy Ashworth and Deputy Ratliff arrested Plaintiffs for obstructing government operations. Mr. Revill did not consent to a search or seizure not authorized by a warrant. Neither Deputy Ashworth nor Deputy Ratliff addressed Ms. Garcia during the arrest, so although she did not offer to turn the satchel over, she also did not expressly refuse to turn over the phones.

         After Plaintiffs were handcuffed, Mr. Gilliland walked out of the courthouse and said in front of several onlookers, “Ya'll [sic] the ones knowingly in possession of child pornography? That was a bad mistake.” (Garcia Doc. 18 at 5; Revill Doc. 1 at 7). Plaintiffs allege they were unaware of any child pornography; Mr. Edwards's wife merely claimed-without any corroboration-during the hearing that the phones contained child pornography.

         Plaintiffs remained handcuffed outside the courthouse in public for approximately 30 minutes, while other individuals walked past. The incident was recorded on the body cam of a City of Oneonta police officer. The officer was asked to keep an eye on the two attorneys. At one point, during a discussion with another police officer, the two officers questioned Deputy Ashworth's actions because the search warrant did not include Ms. Garcia's satchel. The officer with the body cam noted that he did not want to get involved in the situation. (Revill Doc. 1 at 7).

         Plaintiffs were then taken to Blount County Jail and booked. They remained in custody for approximately four hours, before being released after paying a $3, 000 bond each. When released, they were informed that they were charged with obstruction of governmental operations and refusing to permit inspection.

         In the application for the warrant justifying the arrests, Deputy Ashworth averred that she “was attempting to serve a search warrant on Lloyd Clinton Edwards. Victor Revill and Megan Garcia were in possession of an item subject to the search warrant and refused to hand over said item.” (Garcia Doc. 18 at 6). But the search warrant only stated that it was for Mr. Edwards's person and vehicle, making no mention of Plaintiffs or Ms. Garcia's satchel.

         On March 17, 2017, Carol Robinson, a reporter for AL.com, published an article detailing the arrests. The article included quotes from Ms. Casey, in which Ms. Casey explained that “[w]ithin minutes of learning that their client was alleged to have used his cell phone to produce and/or view child pornography, Mr. Revill and Ms. Garcia took possession of their client's phones and attempted to conceal the phones from law enforcement.” (Garcia Doc. 18 at 6). Ms. Casey called Plaintiffs' actions “not only illegal, but unethical.” (Id.). The article has been shared at least 235 times as of December 18, 2018.

         On March 29, 2018, Robert Crocked and Anna Sparks, who were appointed as temporary district attorneys, prosecuted Plaintiffs for obstructing governmental operations, in violation of Alabama Code § 13A-10-2, and refusal to permit inspection, in violation of Alabama Code § 13A-10-3. Ms. Casey recused herself from the case and did not attend the proceedings, but allegedly helped prepare Mr. Edwards for the trial on or about March 16, 2018. At the close of the prosecution's case, the court granted Plaintiffs' motion for judgment of acquittal. Although recused, Ms. Casey stated that she would appeal the decision, but never did so.

         On December 18, 2018, Ms. Garcia filed her suit against the four Defendants in their individual capacities. Her complaint alleged five counts: (1) unreasonable seizure against all Defendants, pursuant to § 1983; (2) defamation against Mr. Gilliland; (3) defamation against Ms. Casey; (4) malicious prosecution against all Defendants in violation of Alabama common law; and (5) malicious prosecution against Ms. Casey in violation of Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct 3.6 and 3.8(1)(a). (Garcia Doc. 18).

         On January 18, 2019, Mr. Revill filed his suit against the four Defendants in their individual capacities. His complaint alleged 13 counts: (1) unlawful investigatory detention against Deputy Ashworth and Deputy Ratliff in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, pursuant to § 1983; (2) unlawful investigatory detention against Ms. Casey and Mr. Gilliland in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, pursuant to § 1983; (3) unlawful arrest against Deputy Ashworth and Deputy Ratliff in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, pursuant to § 1983; (4) unlawful arrest against Ms. Casey and Mr. Gilliland in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, pursuant to § 1983; (5) false imprisonment against Deputy Ashworth and Deputy Ratliff in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, pursuant to § 1983; (6) unlawful detention following arrest against Ms. Casey and Mr. Gilliland in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, pursuant to § 1983; (7) malicious prosecution against all Defendants in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, pursuant to § 1983; (8) malicious prosecution against all Defendants in violation of state law; (9) false imprisonment against Ms. Casey and Mr. Gilliland in violation of Alabama Code § 6-5-170; (10) defamation against Ms. Casey; (11) defamation against Mr. Gilliland; (12) invasion of privacy-false light against Ms. Casey and Mr. Gilliland; and (13) wrongful interference with business relationships against Ms. Casey and Mr. Gilliland. (Revill Doc. 1).

         II. Standard of Review

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss attacks the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Generally, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require only that the complaint provide “‘a short and plain statement of the claim' that will give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)). A plaintiff must provide the grounds of his entitlement, but Rule 8 generally does not require “detailed factual allegations.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley, 355 U.S. at 47). It does, however, “demand[] more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Pleadings that contain nothing more than “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” do not meet Rule 8 standards nor do pleadings suffice that are based merely upon “labels or conclusions” or “naked assertions” without supporting factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557.

         The Supreme Court explained that “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting and explaining its decision in Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). To be plausible on its face, the claim must contain enough facts that “allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. Although “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, '” the complaint must demonstrate “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. “Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         But the Defendants do not attack the sufficiency of the Plaintiffs' factual allegations. Instead, their attack is based on legal defenses under various immunity doctrines. So, the court will consider the standard of review under each immunity raised.

         Prosecutorial Immunity

         The Supreme Court has held that absolute immunity exists for prosecutors in a § 1983 action. See Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 431 (1976) (holding that a person is immune from a civil § 1983 action arising from his action initiating or presenting the state's case). However, prosecutorial immunity depends on the prosecutor's function. See Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 269 (1993). A prosecutor is not immune from prosecution for all acts, but only for those acts “connected with the prosecutor's role in judicial proceedings.” Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 494-95 (1991). These acts include the pursuit of criminal prosecution and court appearances. See Rowe v. Fort Lauderdale, 279 F.3d 1271, 1279 (11th Cir. 2002). But this immunity does not extend to actions taken in an investigative capacity. See Buckley, 509 U.S. at 273 (“A prosecutor's administrative duties and those investigatory functions that do not relate to an advocate's preparation for the initiation of a prosecution or for judicial proceedings are not entitled to absolute immunity.”).

         Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary functions from individual capacity suits unless the official violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002). “The purpose of this immunity is to allow government officials to carry out their discretionary duties without the fear of personal liability or harassing litigation, protecting from suit all but the plainly incompetent or one who is knowingly violating the federal law.” Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         “The applicability of qualified immunity is a question of law to be decided by the court.” Willingham v. Loughnan, 261 F.3d 1178, 1184 (11th Cir. 2001). To receive qualified immunity, a government official “must first prove that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the allegedly wrongful acts occurred.” Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2002).

         “Once the defendant establishes that he was acting within his discretionary authority, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate.” Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194. A two-prong test determines whether qualified immunity is appropriate. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001); see Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009) (holding that the Saucier analysis may be performed in any order). First, the court asks whether, “[t]aken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, . . . the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right.” Gonzalez v. Reno, 325 F.3d 1228, 1234 (11th Cir. 2003) (citing Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201). Second, “[i]f a violation could be made out on a favorable view of the parties' submissions, the next, sequential step is to ask whether the right was clearly established.” Gonzalez, 325 F.3d at 1234.

         A right is clearly established when “the law at the time of an incident [provided] ‘fair warning' to the defendants that their alleged conduct was unconstitutional.” Salvato v. Miley, 790 F.3d 1286, 1292 (11th Cir. 2015). In the Eleventh Circuit, the court considers only binding precedent to create clearly established law. See Gilmore v. Hodges, 738 F.3d 266, 277 (11th Cir. 2013) (“[The court] look[s] only to binding precedent-holdings of cases drawn from the United States Supreme Court, this Court, or the highest court of the state where the events took place.”).

         The court acknowledges that qualified immunity is defense not merely from liability, but from suit. See Blinco v. Green Tree Servicing, LLC, 366 F.3d 1249, 1252 (11th Cir. 2004) (“The defense of sovereign or qualified immunity protects government officials not only from having to stand trial, but from having to bear the burdens attendant to litigation, including pretrial discovery.”). So, the court should resolve questions of qualified immunity “at the earliest possible stage of a litigation.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 646 n.6 (1987). A plaintiff's claim can survive qualified immunity raised in a motion to dismiss if “the plaintiff's allegations state a claim of violation of clearly established law.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). But “the defendant is entitled to summary judgment if discovery fails to uncover evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue as to whether the defendant in fact committed those acts.” Id. (emphasis added). So, even if Plaintiffs' allegations state a claim for violations of clearly established law, such a ruling would not preclude Ms. Casey and Mr. Gilliland from reasserting qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage.

         State-Agent Immunity

         Under Alabama's state-agent immunity doctrine:

A State agent shall be immune from civil liability in his or her personal capacity when the conduct made the basis of the claim against the ...

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