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Renenger v. State

Supreme Court of Montana

September 12, 2018

GERALD and PATRICIA RENENGER, individually and on behalf of their minor son A.R., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
STATE OF MONTANA, STEVEN SHAPIRO; and JEFFERSON COUNTY, MONTANA, Defendants and Appellees.

          Submitted on Briefs: March 21, 2018

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the First Judicial District, In and For the County of Lewis and Clark, Cause No. CDV 15-138 Honorable Kathy Seeley, Presiding Judge

          For Appellants: Scott Peterson, Robert Farris-Olsen, Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson & Deola, PLLP, Helena, Montana

          For Appellees: Gregory L. Bonilla, MACo Defense Services, Helena, Montana, Courtney Mathieson, Special Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana

          OPINION

          JAMES JEREMIAH SHEA, JUSTICE

         ¶1 Appellants Gerald and Patricia Renenger (collectively "Renengers") appeal the October 26, 2015 and June 9, 2017 Orders of the First Judicial District Court, Lewis and Clark County, granting the State's Motion to Dismiss and Jefferson County's Motion for Summary Judgment. We address the following issues:

Issue One: Whether the District Court erred in dismissing the Renengers' complaint on the grounds that the Jefferson County Attorney and the State were entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity.
Issue Two: Whether the District Court erred in granting summary judgment to Jefferson County on the grounds that the public duty doctrine applied.

         ¶2 We affirm.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 On October 6, 2012, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office (JCSO) received a report from the father of J.S., an eleven-year-old boy. J.S.'s father reported that A.R., age ten, had performed oral sex on J.S. without consent. The case was assigned to a JCSO deputy, who filed an incident report. The JCSO deputy did not conduct a forensic interview but did forward the report to the Jefferson County Attorney's Office. Jefferson County appointed a special deputy prosecutor, Steven Shapiro, to evaluate whether to file a delinquency petition. After reviewing the incident report, Shapiro concluded the report established probable cause to believe that A.R. committed the crime of sexual intercourse without consent, in violation of § 45-5-503, MCA. Shapiro signed an Affidavit, attached to his Motion for Leave to File Petition, attesting to this. The District Court determined there was sufficient probable cause and granted the Motion. Jefferson County brought delinquency proceedings against A.R., and A.R. was arraigned. A forensic interview of J.S. was conducted, and it was determined that the allegations against A.R. were greatly exaggerated. The delinquency proceedings against A.R. were then dismissed.

         ¶4 On March 30, 2015, the Renengers, A.R.'s parents, filed an amended complaint against Shapiro, the State, [1] and Jefferson County, which included an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking damages based on an alleged violation of A.R.'s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and a restriction of A.R.'s liberty without due process; a Dorwart claim[2]; and a malicious prosecution claim. The Renengers alleged that Shapiro signed the probable cause Affidavit with reckless disregard for whether the allegations contained within the Affidavit were false. The State and Shapiro moved to dismiss on grounds of absolute prosecutorial immunity. On October 26, 2015, the District Court granted the Motion to Dismiss. The Renengers also filed a negligence claim against Jefferson County, alleging the County had a duty to avoid affirmative acts that would foreseeably cause harm. Jefferson County moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the public duty doctrine barred the Renengers' claims. On June 9, 2017, the District Court granted Jefferson County's Summary Judgment Motion. The Renengers appeal.

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         ¶5 We review de novo a district court's ruling on a motion to dismiss pursuant to M. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Plouffe v. State, 2003 MT 62, ¶ 8, 314 Mont. 413, 66 P.3d 316; Martin v. Artis, 2012 MT 249, ¶ 8, 366 Mont. 513, 290 P.3d 687. We review a district court's conclusions of law for correctness. McKinnon v. W. Sugar Coop. Corp., 2010 MT 24, ¶ 12, 355 Mont. 120, 225 P.3d 1221 (citing Jones v. Mont. Univ. Sys., 2007 MT 82, ¶ 15, 337 Mont. 1, 155 P.3d 1247). A district court's determination that a complaint failed to state a claim presents a conclusion of law. McKinnon, ¶ 12. This Court will construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, McKinnon, ¶ 12, and will take as true all allegations of fact therein, Plouffe, ¶ 8. This Court will affirm a dismissal if we conclude the non-moving party would not be entitled to relief based on any set of facts that could be proven to support the claim. McKinnon, ¶ 12; Plouffe, ¶ 8.

         ¶6 We review a district court's summary judgment ruling de novo. McClue v. Safeco Ins. Co., 2015 MT 222, ¶ 8, 380 Mont. 204, 354 P.3d 604; Wendell v. State Farm. Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 1999 MT 17, ¶ 9, 293 Mont. 140, 974 P.2d 623. Summary judgment is appropriate only when no genuine issue of material fact exists, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Wendell, ¶ 9; M. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). The evidence, as well as all justifiable inferences drawn from it, must be viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Svaldi v. Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, 2005 MT 17, ¶ 12, 325 Mont. 365, 106 P.3d 458. Once the moving party has met its burden of establishing an absence of genuine issues of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, the non-moving party must present material and substantial evidence, rather than mere conclusory or speculative statements. Smith v. Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry., 2008 MT 225, ¶ 10, 344 Mont. 278, 187 P.3d 639 (quoting Hiebert v. Cascade County, 2002 MT 233, ¶ 21, 311 Mont. 471, 56 P.3d 848).

         DISCUSSION

         ¶7 Issue One: Whether the District Court erred in dismissing the Renengers' complaint on the grounds that the Jefferson County Attorney and the State were entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity.

         ¶8 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides citizens a cause of action when state actors violate a federally protected constitutional right. Section 1983 must "be read against the background of [common law] tort liability . . . ." Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 187, 81 S.Ct. 473, 484 (1961), overruled on other grounds by Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 663, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2022 (1978). Any immunities established at common law are viable defenses in a § 1983 action. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554-55, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 1217-18 (1967).

         ¶9 Prosecutorial immunity is an established immunity against civil liability. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 422, 427, 96 S.Ct. 984, 991, 993 (1976); Ronek v. Gallatin County, 227 Mont. 514, 516, 740 P.2d 1115, 1116 (the abolition of sovereign immunity under the Montana Constitution, Article II, Section 18, did not eliminate the defense of prosecutorial immunity). Prosecutorial immunity extends to the State of Montana, State ex rel. Dep't of Justice v. Dist. Court, 172 Mont. 88, 92-93, 560 P.2d 1328, 1330 (1976), and to Montana counties as well, Ronek, 227 Mont. at 516-17, 740 P.2d at 1116-17.

         ¶10 To determine whether a prosecutor, or county attorney, is entitled to immunity, courts look to the "nature of the function performed." Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U.S. 118, 127, 118 S.Ct. 502, 508 (1997) (quoting Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 229, 108 S.Ct. 538, 545 (1988)); Rosenthal v. County of Madison, 2007 MT 277, ¶¶ 27, 29-30, 339 Mont. 419, 170 P.3d 493. A criminal prosecutor is "absolutely immune from civil liability" when performing the traditional functions of an advocate, "regardless of negligence or lack of probable cause." Rosenthal, ΒΆΒΆ ...


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