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Washington v. Rivera

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

September 25, 2019

AKEEM WASHINGTON, Plaintiff-Appellee,
SHANNON R. RIVERA, in her individual capacity, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 6:16-cv-00167-JRH-GRS

          Before NEWSOM and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges. [*]


         In this case involving an alleged Fourth Amendment violation, Shannon Rivera ("Rivera") appeals from the district court's conclusion that she is not entitled to quasi-judicial immunity, qualified immunity, and Georgia official immunity from Akeem Washington's ("Washington") 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law claims. We have reviewed the briefs, the record, and the relevant case law, and have heard from the parties at oral argument. We conclude that Rivera is not entitled to quasi-judicial immunity or Georgia statutory immunity. But we conclude that Rivera's actions did not violate Washington's clearly established rights, and that she is thus entitled to qualified immunity. We will therefore affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         In August 2011, Washington was issued a speeding ticket. He appeared before Judge Jack Carney of the State Court of Bryan County, Georgia, on October 10, 2011, to resolve that ticket. At the hearing, Judge Carney verbally announced that Washington was guilty of speeding and imposed an $895 fine. Rivera, a probation officer for the Bryan County Sheriff's Office, attended the hearing.

         Washington was not carrying enough cash to immediately pay the fine, but told Judge Carney in Rivera's presence that he would go get enough cash to pay. Judge Carney told Washington that he would not be on probation if he paid his fine by October 25, 2011. Rivera heard this exchange. The clerk of court wrote a note specifying the payment deadline and noting to call Rivera if Washington paid. Washington left the courtroom to use an ATM and immediately paid the fine at the clerk's office that same day.

         The Deputy Clerk, Regina Curl, wrote Washington a receipt noting his payment in full. Curl called Bryan County's Probation Office "[i]n accordance with the verbal instructions of" Judge Carney and spoke with Regina Ellis, who worked there with Rivera. Curl told Ellis that Washington had paid his fine and asked Ellis to tell Rivera. But Ellis did not tell Rivera. Curl updated the clerk's office database to reflect Washington's full payment of his fine a few days later.

         On January 11, 2012, someone[2] filed a document in the clerk's office sentencing Washington to probation. The next month, Rivera signed an arrest warrant for Washington, to be submitted to Judge Carney. Ellis notarized and Judge Carney signed the warrant, which stated that Washington had not paid his fine. Between the date of Washington's payment and the date when Rivera signed the arrest warrant, Rivera did not check with Washington, Curl, or Ellis to confirm that Washington did not pay his fine.

         On September 29, 2012, Washington was arrested pursuant to the warrant. He was sent to Bryan County Jail, where he told the Sheriff's office personnel that he had paid his fine. Someone at the Sheriff's office notified Rivera that Washington had been arrested and was claiming that he had already paid. Rivera then confirmed that Washington had paid his fine and authorized his release. Washington was released from custody. Washington's employer, the Georgia Department of Corrections, then fired Washington from his job due to the arrest.

         Washington filed suit in state court against Shannon Rivera and Regina Ellis in their individual capacities, alleging that he was unlawfully arrested under Georgia law.[3] When he amended his complaint to add a § 1983 claim, which alleged that he was deprived of his protection from unreasonable seizure and arrest under the Fourth Amendment, the defendants removed to federal court. Rivera moved for judgment on the pleadings on Washington's third amended complaint, arguing that she is thrice immune from suit under the doctrines of quasi-judicial immunity and qualified immunity and the Georgia Tort Claims Act ("GTCA"). The district court denied her motion, holding that Rivera was not entitled to either type of immunity or the GTCA's protections. Rivera appealed.[4]


         We review the district court's denial of a motion for judgment on the pleadings de novo. Perez, 774 F.3d at 1335. Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate when no material facts are in dispute and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Quasi-Judicial Immunity

         Rivera first invokes quasi-judicial immunity, arguing that her status as a state probation officer entitles her to absolute immunity from Washington's § 1983 claim.

         Quasi-judicial immunity grants protection from suit to officials who are "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process." Hughes v. Chesser, 731 F.2d 1489, 1490 (11th Cir. 1984) (quoting Spaulding v. Nielsen, 599 F.2d 728, 729 (5th Cir. 1979)). [5] We determine whether a government employee deserves quasi-judicial immunity through an analysis of that employee's functions, and "not . . . the status of the defendant." Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 201, 106 S.Ct. 496, 501 (1985) (internal quotations omitted). We do not look to rank, title, or location within the government, but rather examine "the nature of the responsibilities of the individual official" to determine whether the official was exercising a sufficiently judicial function. Id.; see also Spaulding, 599 F.2d at 729 (extending quasi-judicial immunity to a federal probation officer because the "narrow function" at issue (i.e. the preparation and submission of a presentence report to a judge in a criminal case) was "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process, " and noting that when "the challenged activities of a federal probation officer are within this function, " she has absolute immunity (emphasis added)).[6]

         Our lodestar in this case is Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 106 S.Ct. 1092 (1986). In Malley, the Supreme Court did not grant quasi-judicial immunity to a defendant police officer who applied for arrest warrants. Id. at 343, 106 S.Ct. at 1097. The officer analogized his actions to those of a prosecutor who asks a grand jury to indict a suspect; such a prosecutor has quasi-judicial immunity. He noted that an officer must review the evidence before him and exercise a discretionary function based on that evidence, like the prosecutor. Id. at 341–42, 106 S.Ct. at 1096. And he argued that an officer applying for a warrant will likewise not exercise his best judgment if he fears retaliatory lawsuits. Id.

         The Court found this comparison "untenable." Id. at 342, 106 S.Ct. at 1097. It held that the police officer's act of applying for an arrest warrant is not "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process, " Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430, 96 S.Ct. 984, 995 (1976), and is "further removed from the judicial phase of criminal proceedings than the act of a prosecutor in seeking an indictment, " Malley, 475 U.S. at 342–43, 106 S.Ct. at 1097. It concluded that the officer applying for a warrant, unlike a prosecutor seeking an indictment, is not a "central actor in the judicial process" and thus not entitled to absolute immunity. Id. at 343, 106 S.Ct. at 1097.

         We can see little daylight between the police officer's functions in Malley and Rivera's functions here. There is no material difference between a police officer applying for an arrest warrant and a probation officer seeking such a warrant. Both officers act on their own initiative and not at a judge's direction. And both perform a function that we would characterize as investigative rather than one having "an integral relationship with the judicial process." Roland v. Phillips, 19 F.3d 552, 555 (11th Cir. 1994) (internal citations and quotations omitted).[7] We thus hold that, because the Supreme Court in Malley concluded that a police officer's application for a warrant was not sufficiently judicial to receive quasi-judicial immunity, Rivera's action here cannot receive it either.

         We note that our decision brings us in line with most other circuit courts to have considered the issue. Most circuits have not extended absolute immunity to probation officers in related circumstances. See Swift v. California, 384 F.3d 1184, 1191–93 (9th Cir. 2004) (parole officials are not entitled to absolute immunity for investigating parole violations and orchestrating an arrest); Mee v. Ortega, 967 F.2d 423, 429 (10th Cir. 1992) (parole official is not entitled to absolute immunity for initiating the arrest of plaintiff and holding him in jail pending revocation hearing); Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 1989) (parole officers not entitled to absolute immunity when challenged functions include investigating parole violations and drafting warrant applications because these functions are "executive and investigative, " not "adjudicatory"); Ray v. Pickett, 734 F.2d 370, 373 (8th Cir. 1984) (probation officer not entitled to absolute immunity for falsifying a report to obtain a warrant for a parole violator); Galvan v. Garmon, 710 F.2d 214, 215–16 (5th Cir. 1983) (probation officer not entitled to absolute immunity for mistakenly filing an arrest warrant); see also Johnson v. R.I. Parole Bd. Members, 815 ...

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