Thursday, August 16, 2018

U.S. 11th Circuit simplifies Alabama immunity law, making it clear officers are not protected when they act with malice, bad faith, or beyond their authority

Chris Blevins
Alabama has recognized so many forms of legal immunity over the years that it causes mass confusion for anyone trying to get a grip on the subject. In my research, I've encountered probably 8-10 (maybe more) forms of immunity that can apply to Alabamians. Some are based on state law, some on federal law, and some . . . heck, I don't know where they come from.

A 2010 opinion from the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) helped cut through the clutter by proclaiming that Alabama now recognizes only two forms of state immunity -- and it's clear neither affects the Shelby County law-enforcement types who are defendants in our "Jail Case." (Various forms of federal immunity, of course, still apply in Alabama, but those are not a factor in the Jail Case.)

U.S. District Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins wrongly dismissed our state-law claims against former Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry and deputies Chris Blevins, Jason Valenti, and Mike DeHart. How do we know Hopkins got it wrong? Well, we spelled it out in two previous posts. (See here and here.) And a case styled Grider v. City of Auburn, 618 F.3d 1240 (11th Cir., 2010) provides even more clarity. (Hopkins' judgment, and our Rule 59 motion -- plus our two amendments to the motion -- are embedded at the end of this post.) From the Grider ruling:

“As for Plaintiffs' state-law claims, Alabama recognizes two types of state-law immunity: "state-agent immunity" and "discretionary-function immunity. Brown v. City of Huntsville, 608 F.3d 724 (discussing Alabama's two types of state-law immunity). First, state-agent immunity under Alabama's common law protects state employees, as agents of the State, in the exercise of their judgment in executing their work responsibilities." Ex parte Hayles, 852 So.2d 117, 122 (Ala.2002). In Ex parte Cranman, 792 So.2d 392 (Ala. 2000), a plurality of the Alabama Supreme Court restated and clarified the scope of Alabama's state-agent immunity doctrine, which may apply to all Defendants.”

State-agent immunity, according to Grider, does not apply to the law-enforcement defendants in the Jail Case. Discretionary-function immunity, however, does apply. From Grider:

“Second, there is statutory, discretionary-function immunity for law enforcement officers in Alabama. Brown, 608 F.3d at 741. Specifically, § 6-5-338 of the Alabama Code contains a provision immunizing law enforcement officers from tort liability for conduct within the scope of their discretionary law enforcement duties. Ala.Code § 6-5-338(a) (1994) "Every peace officer ... shall have immunity from tort liability arising out of his or her conduct in performance of any discretionary function within the line and scope of his or her law enforcement duties." Wood v. Kesler, 323 F.3d 872, 883 (11th Cir. 2003).

Does discretionary-function immunity provide absolute protection for law-enforcement officials? Absolutely not, as the Grider court makes clear, citing a case styled Ex parte Cranman, 792 So. 2d 392 (Ala., 2000). From Grider: (Citations omitted, but they are included in court documents below.)

Cranman's test for state-agent immunity also governs whether law enforcement officers are entitled to statutory, discretionary-function immunity under § 6-5-338(a). This includes the Reynolds burden-shifting framework, first requiring the defendant law enforcement officer to show that he was acting within the ambit of his discretionary functions and then shifting the burden to the plaintiff to show "bad intent" — that the officer acted willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, or beyond his or her authority — in order to defeat the officer's discretionary-function immunity. ("The restatement of State-agent immunity as set out in Cranman, now governs the determination of whether a peace officer is entitled to immunity under § 6-5-338(a)."). Thus, Plaintiffs can pierce both state-agent immunity and discretionary-function immunity by showing that Defendants . . . acted "willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond his or her authority, or under a mistaken interpretation of the law."

Can we show in the Jail Case that Blevins and Co. acted in such a fashion -- maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, etc.? Given that Blevins broke into our home, without a warrant, and beat me up while making an arrest that involved no criminal allegations, much less felony allegations . . . I would say there is no doubt we can prove the officers acted in a manner that removes the cloak of state immunity.

(To be continued)

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