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Washington v. Rivera

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Statesboro Division

March 8, 2017

SHANNON RIVERA, in her individual capacity and TINA E. ELLIS, in her individual capacity, Defendants.


         "The secretary did it." That's how this case got started, and that assertion figures into a defendant's motion to stay proceedings in this wrongful arrest case until the district judge rules on her dismissal motion. Docs. 21 & 23. The story begins with plaintiff Akeem Washington's October 10, 2011 speeding conviction in Bryan County, Georgia. A judge imposed an $895 fine, then leveraged prompt payment by imposing probation (which itself would cost him additional fees) to terminate upon payment. Doc. 11 at 5-6.[1] Washington paid it that day, id. at 7, and a clerk noted that fact in the clerk's office database the next day. Id. at 11, 12. Defendant Tina Ellis, secretary to probation officer (and co-defendant) Shannon Rivera, was obliged to, but failed, to notify Rivera. Id. at 11, 12; doc. 21 at 4. And Rivera failed to double-check months later, before swearing out a probation-violation arrest warrant.[2] Doc. 11 at 12-14, 19. The resulting arrest cost plaintiff his job. Id. at 15.

         Washington sued both women under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. Doc. 11 at 2. Moving for Judgment on the Pleadings (JOP), Rivera contends that "Washington's claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983 are barred by both quasi-judicial immunity and qualified immunity. His claims under Georgia law are also barred twice over -- both by quasi-judicial immunity and by the Georgia Tort Claims Act. Dismissal of all claims asserted against Rivera in Washington's Second Amended Complaint is warranted." Doc. 21 at 3.

         Rivera contends that her "arrest" decision was a discretionary function entitling her to qualified immunity from Washington's § 1983 claim.[3] Doc. 31 at 7-8. Confident that she'll prevail, she moves to stay this case until the district judge rules on her JOP motion.[4] Doc. 23. The undersigned will reach her stay motion, and thus take a "preliminary peek" at her JOP motion's strength.[5]

         That inquiry encompasses different thresholds for state versus federal claims. Compare Houston v. Owens, 2011 WL 7090811 at * 1 (S.D. Ga. Dec. 6, 2011) (analyzing elements that establish a cognizable claim for unlawful detention under § 1983 in "excess-incarceration" case; a plaintiff must allege (1) intent to confine, (2) acts resulting in confinement, and (3) consciousness of the victim of confinement or resulting harm) (citing Orega v. Christian, 85 F.3d 1521, 1527 n. 2 (11th Cir. 1996)), with Hicks v. McGee, 289 Ga. 573, 576 (2011) (superior court clerk and court employee were not entitled to official immunity from state-law claim over their negligent failure to inform Department of Corrections of prisoner's sentence within 30 days of receipt of amended sentencing order, resulting in 22-month, excess-incarceration claim; specific actions mandated by state statute were ministerial and unambiguously triggered by the amended order, and it did not matter if defendants failed to recognize amended order as a sentencing order).

         The § 1983 claim thus rests on conscious knowledge, if not reckless disregard of facts establishing that Washington's probation had terminated upon payment of his fine (equivalent to criminal recklessness in some contexts, see Gordon v. Wilcher, 2016 WL 7911910 at * 2 (S.D. Ga. Dec. 21, 2016) (citingFarmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994)). The state-law negligence claim requires far less. Washington accuses Ellis of conscious knowledge: "Ellis knew prior to February 7, 2012 that Washington had paid the court imposed fine on October 10, 2011. Nevertheless, [she] prepared the warrant application for Rivera's warrant against Washington and even notarized Rivera's signature. She did not inform Rivera of Washington's payment." Doc. 11 at 20, ¶¶ 98-99.

         Knowingly triggering a false arrest fetches § 1983 liability for state actors. Kingsland v. City of Miami, 382 F.3d 1220, 1233 (11th Cir. 2004) (fact questions as to whether arresting officers had made deliberately false statements on arrest affidavit supporting arrest and subsequent prosecution precluded summary judgment for officers on qualified immunity grounds). Alas, Ellis is not moving for JOP.

         Washington's Amended Complaint allegations against Rivera speak more in negligence than intent ~ obviously a key distinction in supporting a § 1983 versus state-law claim (he raises both against her).[6] Doc. 11 at 19-20, ¶¶ 91-96. But in his stay-motion reply brief he insists: "Washington alleges that Rivera falsely swore out an arrest warrant claiming that he had failed to pay his traffic fine, [so] qualified immunity is simply not available." Doc. 29 at 5 (citing Kingsland).

         The district judge will sort all of that out.

         In the meantime, the parties have already conducted substantial discovery; Rivera has already been deposed and has responded to traditional written discovery. Doc. 29 at 4, 5. Hence, little "litigational efficiency" would be gained by stopping it now. And even if the federal claim is dismissed, Washington's state law (Hicks-type) claim appears viable ~ at least against Ellis. So, the risk is low that discovery will be wasted, even if this case is ultimately tried in state court.[7]

         Shannon Rivera's Motion to Stay these proceedings is therefore DENIED. Doc. 23.

         SO ORDERED



[1] For the purpose of this Order, the Court is accepting facts taken from the cited filings ...

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