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Jackson v. Borough of Haines

Supreme Court of Alaska

May 24, 2019

RANDELL G. JACKSON, Appellant,
v.
BOROUGH OF HAINES, JOSHUA KNORR, JASON F. RETTINGER, ADAM PATTERSON, SIMON FORD, GARY LOWE, DARSIE CALBECK, a/k/a CULBECK, MARK EARNEST, AMY WILLIAMS, and JAMES SCOTT, Appellees.

          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 1JU-14-00839 CI of the State of Alaska, First Judicial District, Juneau, Louis J. Menendez, Judge.

          Randell G. Jackson, pro se, Haines, Appellant.

          Ruth Botstein, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellees Amy Williams and James Scott. No appearances by Borough of Haines, Joshua Knorr, Jason F. Rettinger, Adam Patterson, Simon Ford, Gary Lowe, Darsie Calbeck, a/k/a Culbeck, or Mark Earnest.

          Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Stowers, Maassen, and Carney, Justices. [Winfree, Justice, not participating.]

          OPINION

          BOLGER, CHIEF JUSTICE.

          I. INTRODUCTION

         An individual brought civil claims against the prosecutors who secured his convictions for assault and resisting arrest, alleging that they committed various torts and violated his constitutional right to due process. The superior court dismissed his state and federal claims, concluding that the prosecutors enjoyed absolute immunity. We agree that the prosecutors are protected by absolute immunity from both the state and federal claims because they were acting in their official capacity as advocates for the State when they committed the acts that gave rise to the complaint. Accordingly we affirm the superior court's dismissal of the claims against them.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Randell Jackson was charged with disorderly conduct, assault, and resisting arrest after a 2012 interaction with three police officers in Haines. Amy Williams, an assistant district attorney, first prosecuted Jackson on these charges, but her efforts resulted in a mistrial. James Scott, the Juneau district attorney, oversaw the second round of proceedings against Jackson, which led to his conviction and sentencing. Jackson appealed his convictions in March 2016 to the superior court, which reversed his conviction for disorderly conduct but affirmed his assault and resisting arrest convictions.

         On September 4, 2014, Jackson[1] filed a civil complaint against Scott, Williams, various police officers and state employees involved in his arrest and prosecution, and the Borough of Haines.[2] He brought several constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983[3] and tort claims under state law. He alleged that the arresting officers provided false testimony at his trial, that Scott and Williams refused or neglected to prevent the presentation of this false testimony, that they knowingly or recklessly used this false testimony to convict Jackson, that Williams "made an illegal request for a bench warrant to be issued against [a] defense witness," that Williams "advised and strategized" with the police department regarding Jackson's prosecution, and that Scott "made misrepresentative statement[s] using ethos, speculation and experimentation instead of evidence to wrongfully convict Jackson." Jackson sought recovery for malicious prosecution, malicious abuse of process, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and the violation of various rights established by the federal constitution.

         Jackson then moved to stay his civil case until his criminal appeal was resolved. While the court was considering the stay motion, Scott and Williams moved to dismiss Jackson's claims against them under Alaska Civil Rule 12(b)(6).[4] They argued that "[i]t is well-settled that absolute immunity bars claims for monetary damages against prosecutors when acting in their roles as advocates" and that the conduct challenged in Jackson's complaint "fall[s] squarely within the scope of... Scott's and . . . Williams' absolute immunity as prosecutors."

         The superior court granted both Jackson's and the prosecutors' motions in September 2015. Regarding the motion to dismiss, it explained that "all of Mr. Jackson's claims against... Scott and... Williams arose after the criminal complaint was filed as part of his criminal prosecution. Thus Mr. Jackson's allegations against [them] involve activities intimately associated with the judicial phase of Mr. Jackson's criminal prosecution." Accordingly the superior court found that Scott and Williams were "entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity."

         Jackson's criminal appeal concluded in March 2016, and the superior court dissolved the stay in his civil action in September 2017. In October Jackson moved to continue the stay until he had exhausted all of his post-conviction remedies, but the superior court eventually denied this motion. Upon the motion of the prosecutors, the superior court entered judgment in their favor under Alaska Civil Rule 54(b)[5] in December 2017.[6] The superior court also awarded the prosecutors an attorney's fee award of $4, 311.87, calculated under Alaska Civil Rule 82(b)(2).[7] Jackson appeals.[8]

         III. DISCUSSION

         Jackson raises a number of issues on appeal. He challenges the superior court's dismissal of his claims against the prosecutors under Rule 12(b)(6) and the attorney's fees awarded to them. Jackson also argues that the superior court erred by denying his motion to continue the stay of his civil case and by denying his motion for default judgment against the Borough of Haines. Finally, Jackson challenges the validity of his underlying criminal convictions.

         A. It Was Not Error For The Superior Court To Dismiss Jackson's Claims On The Basis Of Absolute Immunity.

         "A complaint is subject to dismissal under Civil Rule 12(b)(6) 'when its allegations indicate the existence of an affirmative defense, but the defense must clearly appear on the face of the pleading.' "[9] Jackson's complaint asserted claims for relief under both federal and Alaska law. The superior court applied the same reasoning to Jackson's state and federal claims: that prosecutors are entitled to an affirmative defense of absolute immunity for "acts intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process," and that the conduct that gave rise to Jackson's complaint occurred within that phase. "We review decisions granting or denying motions to dismiss de novo."[10] "The applicability of both state and federal immunity are questions of law that are also subject to de novo review."[11]

         1. The affirmative defense of absolute prosecutorial immunity is available under both federal and state law.

         The United States Supreme Court has long held that prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity from claims brought under § 1983, the statute which authorized Jackson's federal claims, when performing acts "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process."[12] But we have not yet decided whether prosecutors may assert an absolute immunity defense against state-law causes of action, like Jackson's malicious prosecution and conspiracy claims.[13]

         In Imbler v. Pachtman, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that prosecutors were entitled to absolute immunity from § 1983 claims.[14] The Court determined that the nature of the prosecutor's role requires the "exercise [of] his best judgment both in deciding which suits to bring and in conducting them in court" and that "[t]he public trust of the prosecutor's office would suffer if he were constrained in making every decision by the consequences in terms of his own potential liability in a suit for damages."[15] The Court also reasoned that, absent absolute immunity, suits for damages "could be expected with some frequency," which would divert the prosecutor's "energy and attention . . . from the pressing duty of enforcing the criminal law."[16] The Court concluded that these considerations outweighed the fact that absolute prosecutorial immunity would "leave the genuinely wronged defendant without civil redress."[17]

         We find this reasoning persuasive. Prosecutors perform an indispensable role in the administration of justice and the maintenance of public safety. Their job requires them to make decisions about how and when to prosecute, and which cases to bring in order to best serve the public good. Exposure to civil liability for their decisions could affect prosecutors' judgment, eroding public trust in the office and hampering their ability to pursue cases in the public's interest.[18]

         Moreover, liability in tort for claims like malicious prosecution would require an inquiry into a prosecutor's motives.[19] This is a question of fact, the determination of which would likely require a trial.[20] Even if such claims were relatively infrequent, the burden of defending them in what could be lengthy or complex proceedings would detract from the prosecutor's ability to fulfill the duties of his or her office.[21]

         A rule of absolute prosecutorial immunity may leave injured parties with no meaningful alternative remedies or avenues for relief. But the importance of the office and threat that its efficacy will be eroded by defensive litigation outweigh this concern.

         Jackson questions whether "a certain class of people" should be "above the constitutional rules of law." But he does not argue that a different analysis of the immunity defense should be applied as a matter of state law.

         We thus join the U.S. Supreme Court and the majority of other states[22] in holding that prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity from tort claims when acting in their role as advocates for the State.

         2. The prosecutors are entitled to assert absolute immunity because they were acting in their roles as advocates of the State.

         Having determined that absolute immunity is available to the prosecutors as an affirmative defense to state-law claims, we must now decide whether they are entitled to assert it in this case. The focus of this inquiry is on the nature of the conduct that gave rise to Jackson's claims. Prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity when performing acts "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process."[23] The U.S. Supreme Court has explained that absolute immunity protects actions taken in the capacity of an advocate, but not necessarily "investigative or administrative tasks."[24]

         The superior court found that Scott and Williams were entitled to an absolute immunity defense because all of Jackson's claims challenged conduct that "arose after the criminal complaint was filed as part of his criminal prosecution." Because of this it determined that the prosecutors' actions were "intimately associated with the judicial phase of Mr. Jackson's criminal prosecution." Jackson argues on appeal that Scott and Williams each acted negligently in an administrative capacity, prior to occupying the role ...


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