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Roberts v. City of Fairbanks

United States District Court, D. Alaska

October 22, 2018



          H. Russel Holland, United States District Judge

         Defendants move to dismiss plaintiffs' second amended and consolidated complaint.[1]This motion is opposed.[2] Oral argument was requested and has been heard.


         Plaintiffs are Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Eugene Vent. Defendants are the City of Fairbanks, James Geier, Clifford Aaron Ring, Chris Nolan, and Dave Kendrick.

         Plaintiffs were convicted of the October 11, 1997 murder of John Hartman[3] and then sentenced to prison sentences ranging from 30 years to 77 years.[4] Plaintiffs allege that their convictions were the result of manufactured evidence and false statements.[5]

         In September 2013, plaintiffs filed petitions for post-conviction relief (“PCR”) in the Alaska Superior Court, “arguing that newfound testimonial and physical evidence could prove their factual innocence.”[6] A five-week evidentiary hearing on plaintiffs' PCR petitions was held in the fall of 2015.[7] Plaintiffs allege that “[t]his evidentiary hearing established that [they] were actually innocent of Hartman's murder” and that they “squarely placed their factual innocence at issue during the PCR hearing.”[8] Plaintiffs allege that the evidence presented at the hearing included testimony from William Holmes “that he and his friends were Hartman's true killers, ” testimony from “at least eleven witnesses who corroborated his account[, ]” and testimony that “the Alaska State Troopers had been able to corroborate key aspects of Holmes's confession and had been unable to locate any evidence placing [p]laintiffs at the scene of the Hartman homicide. . . .”[9]

         Plaintiffs allege that “[a]t the conclusion of the PCR hearing in November 2015, the presiding judge told the parties multiple times that it would take him six to eight months to reach a decision.”[10] They also allege that “[m]embers of the prosecution . . . stated publically that if the trial court concluded [that] the convictions should be vacated and ordered a new trial, the State would appeal that decision through to the Alaska Supreme Court.”[11] Plaintiffs allege that “[t]his signaled an official willingness to delay further resolution of the case and release of all the [p]laintiffs, other than Roberts who had by this time served his sentence and had been released on probation.”[12]

         Plaintiffs allege that “[j]ust before Christmas, the prosecutors offered [them] a devil's bargain: the prosecution would consent to vacating the convictions and dismissing the charges but only if [they] would agree not to sue to vindicate their civil rights.”[13] Plaintiffs allege that State prosecutors were attempting “to avert probable judicial findings that [p]laintiffs were innocent and/or that the convictions were marred by official misconduct.”[14]Plaintiffs further allege that State prosecutors were attempting to “forestall [p]laintiffs' civil action, through the waiver of claims, that likely would expose FPD [Fairbanks Police Department] officers and their colleagues in the Fairbank District Attorney Office to unfavorable litigation and public scrutiny into police and prosecutorial misconduct. . . .”[15]

         Plaintiffs took the deal that was offered and entered into settlement agreements with the State of Alaska and the City of Fairbanks.[16] The settlement agreements provided that plaintiffs would stipulate to the withdrawal of their PCR petitions and that the parties would stipulate to a court order vacating the judgments of conviction.[17] The State agreed to file dismissals of the indictments and “not to seek a retrial” but reserved the right to seek a retrial if “substantial new evidence of guilt is discovered[.]”[18] The settlement agreements further provided that “[t]he parties have not reached agreement as to [plaintiffs'] actual guilt or innocence.”[19]

         In the settlement agreements, plaintiffs

release[d] and forever discharge[d] . . . the City of Fairbanks and its departments, divisions, agencies, agents, representatives, directors, past and current employees, attorneys, contractors, retained or non-retained experts, witnesses, predecessors or successors in interest, and assigns . . . of and from any and all past, present, or future actions, causes of action, controversies, suits, claims, demands, liabilities, complaints or grievances of every kind and nature, whether mature or to mature in the future, and whether known or unknown, for or by reason of any matter, thing, claim, or allegation arising out of or in any way related to the arrest, investigation, prosecution, appeal, legal representation, or incarceration associated with, connected to, or related in any way to any legal matters or actions referenced above, or any other matters arising prior to the date of this Settlement Agreement and Mutual Release of All Claims.[20]

         More specifically, plaintiffs released

any and all claims . . . arising out of the investigation into the death of Jonathan Hartman and the subsequent prosecution and incarceration of [plaintiffs], . . . including but not limited to claims for malicious prosecution, wrongful imprisonment, prosecutorial misconduct, legal malpractice, [and] violation or deprivation of rights civil or constitutional[.[21]

         Plaintiffs also “release[d] any right [they] may now or hereafter have to reform, rescind, modify or set aside th[e] Settlement Agreement[s] and Mutual Release[s] of All Claims through mutual or unilateral mistake or otherwise.”[22]


declare[d] that the terms of th[e] Settlement Agreement[s] and Mutual Release[s] of All Claims have been carefully read and are fully understood and are voluntarily accepted [f]or the purpose of making a full and final compromise of any and all claims, disputed or otherwise, for and on account of the matters described above.[23]

         The settlement agreements also provided that “[i]t is mutually understood by the [p]arties that the purpose of th[ese] Agreement[s] is that there be no further litigation by [plaintiffs] or others on [their] behalf related to this matter.”[24] The settlement agreements also noted that the agreements had “been drafted by the [p]arties through the efforts of their respective legal counsel” and that “[t]he [p]arties warrant that the terms of th[e] Agreement[s] have been carefully reviewed and that each [p]arty understands [their] contents and has been advised as to the legal effect of th[e] Agreement[s] by legal counsel obtained by that [p]arty.”[25] Each of plaintiffs' lawyers represented that they had “carefully and fully explained the terms, provisions and effects of” the agreements and that their clients represented that they understood the terms of the agreements and the significance of the terms.[26]

         The terms of the stipulation that was contemplated in the settlement agreements were presented to the Superior Court on December 11, 2015. Plaintiffs “stipulate[d] and agree[d] that the original jury verdicts and judgments of conviction were properly and validly entered based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt[, ]” and the parties “stipulate[d] and agree[d] that th[e Superior c]ourt need not make findings of innocence under AS 12.72.020.”[27] In paragraph 5 of the stipulation, “[t]he parties stipulate[d] and agree[d] that [the Superior c]ourt may immediately enter Orders vacating the Judgments of Conviction, Restitution Orders, and Rule 39 judgments for attorney fees in each” underlying criminal case “and award[] each Petitioner the relief of a new trial for each of the charges for which Petitioners were convicted.”[28] The stipulation provided that “[u]pon entry of the Orders in paragraph 5, Petitioners withdraw their claims of prosecutorial misconduct asserted” in their PCR petitions.[29] The stipulation also provided that “[u]pon entry of the Orders in Paragraph 5, . . . the State will not seek retrial in any of the underlying criminal cases and will file dismissals pursuant to Criminal Rule 43(a) of the indictments. . . .”[30] Finally, “the parties stipulate[d] and agree[d] that upon the filing of the . . . dismissals, [the Superior c]ourt shall order the immediate and unconditional release of Petitioners from custody and supervision. . . .”[31]

         On December 17, 2015, the Superior Court held a hearing to address the stipulation. At the hearing, the Superior Court judge read the stipulation into the record and declared that “[t]he orders vacating the judgment of conviction and commitment and probation and restitution will enter” and that he would “sign them off the record.”[32]

         The State dismissed the charges against plaintiffs on December 17, 2015.[33] The orders vacating plaintiffs' convictions and sentences were also signed on December 17, 2015 2015.[34] And, Vent, Pease, and Frese were released from prison on December 17, 2015.

         On May 14, 2018, plaintiffs filed their second amended and consolidated complaint in this matter. In this complaint, they assert twelve causes of action. In the first cause of action, plaintiffs assert § 1983 deprivation of liberty claims. In the second cause of action, plaintiffs assert § 1983 claims for malicious prosecution. In the third cause of action, plaintiffs assert § 1983 Brady claims. In the fourth cause of action, plaintiffs assert § 1983 supervisor liability claims. In the fifth cause of action, plaintiffs assert § 1983 civil rights conspiracy claims. In the sixth cause of action, plaintiffs assert § 1985(3) conspiracy claims. In the seventh cause of action, plaintiffs assert Monell claims under § 1983 against the City of Fairbanks. In the eighth cause of action, plaintiffs assert § 1983 First Amendment right of access claims. In the ninth cause of action, Vent and Frese assert Fifth Amendment violation claims.[35] In the tenth cause of action, plaintiffs assert spoliation of evidence claims. In the eleventh cause of action, plaintiffs assert negligence claims. In the twelfth cause of action, plaintiffs assert intentional infliction of emotional distress claims.

         Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, defendants now move to dismiss plaintiffs' claims for failure to state plausible claims. In the alternative, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(7), defendants move to dismiss plaintiffs' claims for failure to join the State of Alaska as an indispensable party.


         “‘To survive a [Rule 12(b)(6)] 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.'” Zixiang Li v. Kerry, 710 F.3d 995, 999 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). “A claim is facially plausible ‘when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). “The plausibility standard requires more than the sheer possibility or conceivability 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 Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). “[T]he complaint must provide ‘more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” In re Rigel Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Securities Litig., 697 F.3d 869, 875 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). “In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court accepts the complaint's well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Adams v. U.S. Forest Srvc., 671 F.3d 1138, 1142-43 (9th Cir. 2012). “However, the trial court does not have to accept as true conclusory allegations in a complaint or legal claims asserted in the form of factual allegations.” In re Tracht Gut, LLC, 836 F.3d 1146, 1150 (9th Cir. 2016).

         As an initial matter, plaintiffs “do not oppose” the dismissal of their negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress claims.[36] Defendants' motion to dismiss these two claims is granted. Plaintiffs' negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress claims are dismissed with prejudice.

         Plaintiffs do oppose the dismissal of their other ten claims. Defendants first argue that these claims are subject to dismissal because they are barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).

         The question before the Court in Heck was “whether a state prisoner may challenge the constitutionality of his conviction in a suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Id. at 478. Heck had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter in state court and was serving a fifteen-year sentence. Id. He filed a § 1983 action in federal court, alleging that the state prosecutor and police investigator had conducted an unlawful investigation, destroyed evidence, and used illegal and unlawful evidence at his trial. Id. at 479. Heck sought damages; he did not seek to be released from custody. Id.

         The Seventh Circuit had held that if a prisoner is challenging the legality of his conviction, “the suit is classified as an application for habeas corpus and the plaintiff must exhaust his state remedies.” Id. at 480 (citation omitted). But, the Court found that “[t]he issue with respect to monetary damages challenging conviction is not . . . exhaustion; but rather . . . whether the claim is cognizable under § 1983 at all.” Id. at 483.

         The Court then compared Heck's § 1983 claims to “[t]he common-law cause of action for malicious prosecution” and observed that for such a claim “[o]ne element that must be alleged and proved . . . is termination of the prior criminal proceeding in favor of the accused.” Id. at 484. The Court found that “the hoary principle that civil tort actions are not appropriate vehicles for challenging the validity of outstanding criminal judgment applies to § 1983 damages actions that necessarily require the plaintiff to prove the unlawfulness of his conviction or confinement[.]” Id. at 486. Thus, the Court held

that, in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

Id. at 486-87. “A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983.” Id. at 487. The Court explained that

when a state prisoner seeks damages in a § 1983 suit, the district court must consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence; if it would, the complaint must be dismissed unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the conviction or sentence has already been invalidated. But if the district court determines that the plaintiff's action, even if successful, will not demonstrate the invalidity of any outstanding ...

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