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Doran v. Smith

United States District Court, D. Montana, Great Falls Division

August 6, 2019

DAN DORAN and JULIE DORAN, Plaintiffs,
WILLY SMITH; RYAN BALL; and DOES 1-10, Defendants.



         Before the Court is Defendant Ryan Ball's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 41) on the claims Plaintiffs Dan and Julie Doran brought against him in their Amended Complaint (Doc. 17). The Court holds Ball is entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity, grants his motion for summary judgment, and enters judgment in his favor. Because the Court finds the issue of absolute prosecutorial immunity dispositive, it does not address the remaining issues Ball raises in his motion.

         I. Background

         In September 2015, Loretta Day passed away and left her home in Great Falls, Montana, to her son, Dan Doran, and her two other children. (Doc. 50-8 at 7-9.) After a January 2016 fire destroyed the home, a City of Great Falls Police Department investigation produced information that led Ryan Ball, a Deputy Cascade County Attorney, to file charges against Dan Doran for arson and theft. (Doc. 50 at ¶ 13.)

         Based on the official police reports, Ball filed an affidavit in support of the information and charges with the District Court. (Doc. 42-2.) In the affidavit, Ball alleged the family had difficulty selling the house after Loretta's death. (Doc. 42-2 at 4.) He outlined the investigation the Great Falls police and fire departments conducted and the suspicious circumstances they uncovered surrounding the fire. (Doc. 42-2 at 4-5.) He stated that the morning of the fire, the police department received a phone call from an individual stating Dan set the fire and had set fires in the past when he needed money. Ball stated officers found the individual's information reliable because they confirmed Dan had been linked to other fire investigations in Great Falls. Id. Ball described an interview officers had with Dan where he claimed to have stayed in Helena the night of the fire, but cell phone tower data placed him much closer to Great Falls. Ball also stated detectives reviewed video surveillance footage from a local business that showed a dark-colored truck consistent with Dan's vehicle driving in Great Falls the night of the fire. Id. Based on this information, Ball moved the court for leave to file an information charging Dan with arson and theft (the theft stemming from alleged insurance fraud). (Doc. 42-2 at 5.)

         The District Court found probable cause existed to grant Ball leave to file the information and issued a warrant for Dan's arrest. (Doc. 50 at ¶¶ 16-17.) Dan filed a motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause, and the court granted his motion with respect to the theft charge but denied it with respect to the arson charge. (Doc. 50 at ¶ 28.) The case proceeded to trial on the remaining arson charge, and a jury ultimately found Dan not guilty. (Doc. 50 at ¶¶ 35-36.)

         Dan and Julie Doran subsequently advanced several claims against Ball for negligence, malicious prosecution, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and violations of Dan's rights under the United States and Montana constitutions.[1] (Doc. 17 at ¶¶ 100-67.) They invoked this Court's federal question jurisdiction for their federal claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1343, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1988, and they invoked supplemental jurisdiction for their state claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Ball filed a motion for summary judgment on all counts.

         II. Legal Standard

         A party is entitled to summary judgment if it can demonstrate "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In making that determination, the Court views the evidence "in the light most favorable to the opposing party." Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 657 (2014) (quoting Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). A party asserting a fact is genuinely disputed generally must support the assertion by citing to the record. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

         III. Discussion

         Ball contends the Dorans' allegations against him all stem from actions he took within the scope of his prosecutorial duties, and therefore, the doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity shields him from the Dorans' claims. The Dorans counter Ball's actions fall outside the scope of prosecutorial duties.

         The Supreme Court has long held prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity from liability for actions "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process. Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, 555 U.S. 335, 343 (2009) (quoting Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430 (1976)). "[A] state prosecuting attorney who acted within the scope of his duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution" is not amenable to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Imbler, 424 U.S. at 410. Nevertheless, "the actions of a prosecutor are not absolutely immune merely because they are performed by a prosecutor." Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273 (1993). Absolute prosecutorial immunity stems from "the interest in protecting the proper functioning of the office, rather than the interest in protecting its occupant...." Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U.S. 118, 125 (1997). Accordingly, "the touchstone is 'the nature of the function performed, not the identity of the actor who performed it.'" Torres v. Goddard, 793 F.3d 1046, 1051 (9th Cir. 2015) (quoting Kalina, 522 U.S. at 127).

         Absolute immunity applies when a prosecutor performs traditional functions of an advocate such as preparing to initiate judicial proceedings or appearing in court to present evidence in support of an application for a search warrant. Kalina, 522 U.S. at 125-26 (citing Buckley, 509 U.S. at 273; Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478 (1991)). The traditional functions of an advocate also include "the professional evaluation of the evidence assembled by the police and appropriate preparation for its presentation at trial or before a grand jury after a decision to seek an indictment has been made." Buckley, 509 U.S. at 273. However, the rule is not without its exceptions-absolute prosecutorial immunity does not apply when a prosecutor gives advice to police during a criminal investigation, see Burns, 500 U.S. at 496, when a prosecutor makes statements to the press, see Buckley, 509 U.S. at 277, or when a prosecutor acts as a complaining witness in support of a warrant application, see Kalina, 522 U.S. at 131.

         In Kalina, a Washington state prosecutor commenced a criminal proceeding against a defendant by filing three documents: an information charging the defendant, a motion for an arrest warrant, and a third document-a "Certification for Determination of Probable Cause"-summarizing the evidence supporting the charge. In the certification, the prosecutor personally vouched for the truth of the facts set forth under penalty of perjury. Id. at 120-21. The certification, however, contained two inaccurate factual statements. Washington ...

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