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Echols v. Lawton

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

July 28, 2017

SPENCER LAWTON, in his individual capacity, Defendant.



         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint by Special Appearance (Doc. 29.) For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is GRANTED. As a result, Plaintiff's complaint is DISMISSED. The Clerk of Court is DIRECTED to close this case.


         This case revolves around Plaintiff Douglas Echols's exoneration for rape and kidnapping convictions.[1] In 1987, Plaintiff was convicted in the Superior Court of Chatham County of those two offenses and sentenced to a fifteen-year term of imprisonment. (Doc. 26, ¶¶ 8, 13.) While imprisoned, Plaintiff endured numerous attacks because he had been convicted of a sex offense. (Id. ¶¶ 14-16.) Plaintiff was also dishonorably discharged from the United States Army. (Id. ¶ 17.) After serving five years in prison, Plaintiff was released on parole, monitored using an ankle bracelet, and required to register as a sex offender. (Id. ¶¶ 19-21.) In an effort to secure meaningful employment, Plaintiff violated his parole by traveling outside the Savannah area. (Id. ¶ 22.) Ultimately, Plaintiff served an additional two-years imprisonment based on that parole violation. (Id.)

         In July 2001, a DNA test conducted by a third party determined that the semen obtained from the rape victim was not from Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff promptly presented this DNA evidence to the Chatham County District Attorney-Defendant Spencer Lawton. (Id. ¶ 24.) Defendant ordered additional DNA testing from the Georgia State Crime Lab, which confirmed that the semen collected in connection with the rape conviction was not from Plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26.)

         After hearing this new evidence, the Chatham County Superior Court concluded that it was "so material that it would likely result in a different outcome at trial." (Id. ¶ 27.) That court granted Plaintiff a new trial, and the rape and kidnapping indictment against Plaintiff was dismissed. (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) Ultimately, the State declined to proceed and entered a nolle prosequi with respect to those charges. (Id. ¶ 29.)

         Based on the vacated convictions, a local member of the Georgia House of Representative presented House Resolution 96 to the Georgia General Assembly. (Id. ¶ 36.) That resolution sought to provide Plaintiff with $1, 600, 000 in compensation for losses related to his vacated convictions. (Id.) On two occasions, the Georgia Claims Advisory Board considered House Resolution 96 and unanimously determined that Plaintiff should receive compensation in an amount to be determined by the General Assembly. (Id. ¶¶ 38-39.)

         Somewhere in this process, Defendant[2] sent Senator Jack Hill a February 8, 2006 letter regarding House Resolution 96. (Id. ¶ 40.) Defendant also emailed a memorandum to several other legislators. (Id. ¶ 41.) In these communications, [3] Defendant "claimed that Plaintiff's conviction and imprisonment for the crimes of rape and kidnapping were proper and fitting, even though Plaintiff's conviction had been vacated and a new trial had been granted." (Id. ¶ 45.) In addition, Defendant stated that Plaintiff remained under indictment, despite knowing that a nolle prosequi had been entered on those charges in October 2002. (Id. ¶¶ 46-47.) Defendant also opined that "the Georgia Legislature should not give Plaintiff the benefit of the presumption of innocence of the crimes of rape and kidnapping for which he had been imprisoned, " and that "the vacation of Plaintiff's conviction[s] and grant of a new trial did not establish Plaintiff's innocence." (Id. ¶ 48.) Defendant "insisted that Plaintiff should not be compensated for his imprisonment for nearly sixteen years under [] conviction[s] that had been overturned, unless Plaintiff actually proved that he was innocent of the crimes of rape and kidnapping." (Id. ¶ 4 9.) According to Plaintiff, the General Assembly failed to pass House Resolution 96 "specifically due to Defendant Lawton's correspondence." (Id. ¶ 55.)

         Based on those events, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this court (Doc. 1), which he later amended (Doc. 26). In the amended complaint, Plaintiff brings three substantive counts against Defendant, all based on 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id. ¶¶ 56-66.) In Count One, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant violated § 1983 by denying Plaintiff's "constitutional rights to substantive and procedural due process, which rights are fundamental and guaranteed by the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution." (Id. ¶ 57.) Count Two argues that Defendant interfered and abridged "Plaintiff's constitutional rights to freedom of speech and right to petition the Government for redress of his grievances, which rights are fundamental and guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments." (Id. ¶ 61.) Finally, Count Three claims that Defendant "retaliate[d] against Plaintiff Douglas Echols for exercising his constitutional rights to freedom of speech and to petition the Government for redress of his grievances." (Id. ¶ 65.) Based on these claims, Plaintiff seeks both compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees and costs. (Id. ¶ 71.) In his Motion to Dismiss, Defendant contends that Plaintiff's § 1983 claims lack merit because Plaintiff has immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States that was denied by Defendant. (Doc. 29, Attach. 1 at 7.) In addition, Defendant argues that he is entitled to both prosecutorial (id. at 15-20) and qualified immunity (id. at 21-25).

         In response, Plaintiff maintains that Defendant deprived Plaintiff of his constitutional rights by denying him substantive due process (Doc. 30 at 10-11); procedural due process (id. at 15-17); liberty, property, and the presumption of innocence (id. at 12-14); and the First Amendment right to petition and seek redress from the General Assembly (id. at 17-18). Also, Plaintiff argues that Defendant is not entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity because the nolle prosequi entered on the rape and kidnapping charges ended the judicial process. (Id. at 3-8.) Finally, Plaintiff reasons that qualified immunity is inapplicable in this case because Defendant was not exercising his discretionary authority and deprived Plaintiff of clearly established constitutional rights. (Id. at 18-20.)



         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) (2) requires a complaint to contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." "[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require 'detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or a 'formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.' " Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement.' " Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557) (alteration in original).

         "To survive a 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.' " Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570) . For a claim to have facial plausibility, the plaintiff must plead factual content that "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Sinaltrainal v. Coca-Cola Co., 578 F.3d 1252, 1261 (11th Cir. 2009) (quotations omitted) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Plausibility does not require probability, "but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. "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 Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). Additionally, a complaint is sufficient only if it gives "fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Sinaltrainal, 57 8 F.3d at 1268 (quotations omitted) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. At 555) .

         When the Court considers a motion to dismiss, it accepts the well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true. Sinaltrainal, 578 F.3d 1252 at 1260. However, this Court is "not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Moreover, "unwarranted deductions of fact in a complaint are not admitted as true for the purpose of testing the sufficiency of [plaintiff's] allegations." Sinaltrainal, 578 F.3d at 1268 (citing Aldana v. Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., Inc., 416 F.3d 1242, 1248 (11th Cir. 2005)). That is, "[t]he rule Moes not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, ' but instead simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Watts v. Fla. Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295-96 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545).

         II. 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         Section 1983 does not include any provision that creates substantive rights, but provides only a remedy for -deprivations of federal statutory and constitutional rights." Almand v. DeKalb Cty., 103 F.3d 1510, 1512 (11th Cir. 1997) (citing Whiting v. Traylor, 85 F.3d 581, 583 (11th Cir. 1996)) . A requirement of any valid claim under § 1983 is the alleged deprivation of at least one of the plaintiff's federal constitutional or statutory rights by a defendant acting under color of state law.[4]Id. (citing Harvey v. Harvey, 949 F.2d 1127, 1130 (11th Cir. 1992)). The specific facts peculiar to each case determine whether a plaintiff was deprived of such a right. Sinqletary v. Vargas,804 F.3d 1174, 1180 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing McCullouqh v. Antolini, 559 F.3d 1201, 1202 (11th Cir. 2009)). In this case, Plaintiff alleges that ...

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