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Roth v. Carlson

United States District Court, D. Alaska

February 29, 2016

HAROLD J. ROTH, Plaintiff,



Before the Court at Docket 38 is Defendant Edwin Carlson’s Motion for Summary Judgment, supported by Trooper Carlson’s Memorandum and exhibits at Docket 39 and filed on December 21, 2015. Plaintiff Harold J. Roth responded at Docket 42 on February 1, 2016, and Trooper Carlson replied at Docket 45 on February 16, 2016. Oral argument was not requested and was not necessary to the Court’s determination of the motion.


The Court has recently recounted the background facts of this case, which will not be repeated here.[1] In an order dated February 16, 2016, the Court ruled that the Alaska Attorney General’s certification that Trooper Carlson acted within the course and scope of his employment was valid, granted Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss the state law claims, and dismissed the State of Alaska as a defendant. The Court found no basis to conclude that Trooper Carlson acted with willful, reckless, or intentional misconduct, or with gross negligence or malice. Only Plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C § 1983 claim against Trooper Carlson remains (Count VI), together with any associated punitive damages (Count V).[2] For the reasons set forth herein, the Court will grant summary judgment to Defendant Carlson on that claim.

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) directs a court to “grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” The burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact lies with the moving party.[3] If the moving party meets this burden, the non-moving party must present specific factual evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine issue of fact.[4] The non-moving party may not rely on mere allegations or denials.[5] He must demonstrate that enough evidence supports the alleged factual dispute to require a finder of fact to make a determination at trial between the parties’ differing versions of the truth.[6]

When considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must accept as true all evidence presented by the non-moving party, and draw “all justifiable inferences” in the non-moving party’s favor.[7] To reach the level of a genuine dispute, the evidence must be such “that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.”[8] The non-moving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.”[9] If the evidence provided by the non-moving party is “merely colorable” or “not significantly probative, ” summary judgment is appropriate.[10]

The Ninth Circuit has held that summary judgment on qualified immunity is appropriate when “the material, historical facts are not in dispute, and the only disputes involve what inferences properly may be drawn from those historical facts.”[11]

II. Qualified Immunity Standard

“The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’”[12] The purpose of qualified immunity is to “balance[] two important interests-the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.”[13]

Government officials are not entitled to qualified immunity on summary judgment if (1) the facts taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff show that the officials’ conduct violated a constitutional right, and (2) that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.[14] Both prongs of the analysis must be satisfied, so that if a court determines that one prong is not met, qualified immunity applies. A court may consider either prong first.[15]

For a constitutional right to be clearly established, its contours must be “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.”[16] Courts should not define clearly established law at a high level of generality; otherwise, qualified immunity becomes no immunity at all if the only prerequisite is a constitutional violation.[17] Put simply, “qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments, and protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”[18]

III. Discussion

This is a case in which the material, historical facts are not in dispute. Rather, the only dispute involves what inferences properly may be drawn from those historical facts. The parties do not dispute that Mr. Roth was pulled over for failing to stop at a stop sign, was arrested for driving under the influence after mixed field sobriety test results, but subsequent breath and blood tests did not detect any of the tested-for intoxicating substances and the DUI case against Mr. Roth was dismissed.[19] Mr. Roth draws the inference from these facts that this amounts to a constitutional violation.[20] Trooper Carlson asserts that he made objectively reasonable decisions regarding Mr. Roth’s arrest so he is entitled to qualified immunity from Mr. Roth’s lawsuit.[21] Summary judgment to the Defendant is warranted unless a reasonable jury could conclude that Trooper Carlson violated a clearly established ...

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