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Sanchez v. Rash

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

October 15, 2019

CIERRA RASH, et al., Defendants.


          Timothy J. Cavan United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Krissy Sanchez filed this action in November 2017, challenging defendants' actions in connection with the care and custody of her children. Defendant Corbit Harrington moves for summary judgment on grounds of prosecutorial immunity. Defendant Laura McCullough moves for dismissal because Sanchez has indicated she does not intend to proceed against McCullough. Defendant Fridel moves for judgment on the pleadings. He asserts that he is not a state actor; or, if he is a state actor, he is entitled to qualified immunity; and that Sanchez has not adequately pled a constitutional violation against him.

         I. Defendant Harrington's Motion for Summary Judgment

         Harrington moves for summary judgment on grounds that he is protected by prosecutorial immunity. Sanchez responded to his motion on August 20, 2019 (Doc. 54; Doc. 56 at 1-45), and Harrington replied on August 28, 2019 (Doc. 61).

         A. Sanchez's Supplement and Statement of Disputed Facts

         Following the reply, Sanchez filed a “supplement” to her response, including a statement of disputed facts (Doc. 64) on September 5, 2019. The supplement was not properly filed and the statement of disputed facts was untimely. See D. Mont. L.R. 7.1(d)(1)(B)(i), (D), 56.1(b).

         The supplement contains allegations that Harrington “fails to train or reprimand or hold accountability for the illegal actions committed” by social workers, Pl. Supp. (Doc. 64) at 3, and that “Harrington and his office” or “the county attorney bypassed all legal avenues obtained ex parte hearings and orders and fail[] to notify the court and all family members hides the fact that [family members] are present and capable of managing their family during crisis.” Id. Sanchez also alleges other acts by Harrington in the statement of disputed facts. See, e.g., Statement (Doc. 64) at 7 ¶¶ 10 [serially 11], 12; id. at 7-8 ¶¶ 13-15. These allegations are not reflected in the complaint or amended complaint and are not properly before the Court. Sanchez also discusses actions by Defendants Lauwers, McCave, Taylor, and Cunningham. They have not filed a motion for summary judgment.

         Therefore, Sanchez's supplement and statement of disputed facts should be stricken in their entirety. They will not be further considered here.

         B. Merits of the Motion for Summary Judgment

         1. Summary Judgment Standards

         A court will grant summary judgment if the movant can show “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). Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.

         The moving party has the initial burden to submit evidence demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the movant meets its initial responsibility, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to establish a genuine issue of material fact. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party must “go beyond the pleadings and by ‘the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,' designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)).

         2. Prosecutorial Immunity

         Prosecutorial immunity protects the function of a prosecutor or State's attorney in the judicial process. Immunity “is not grounded in any special esteem for those who perform these functions, and certainly not from a desire to shield abuses of office, but because any lesser degree of immunity could impair the judicial process itself.” Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 342 (1986)). “Frequently acting under serious constraints of time and even information, a prosecutor inevitably makes many decisions that could engender colorable claims of constitutional deprivation. Defending these decisions, often years after they were made, could impose unique and intolerable burdens upon a prosecutor responsible annually” for hundreds of cases. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 425-26 (1976).

         Because immunity is designed to protect a function, it applies to all of counsel's actions and decisions-right or wrong, fair or unfair-that are “intimately associated with the judicial phase” of the State's involvement with a criminal defendant, or a taxpayer, or, in Sanchez's case, a parent. See, e.g., Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 269-71 (1993). It applies when a deputy county attorney makes sound legal decisions that lead to a good outcome or that are adopted by a judge and affirmed by an appellate court. It also applies when a deputy county attorney makes bad decisions. See, e.g., Imbler, 424 U.S. at 416 (describing allegations against prosecutor). Regardless of whether the acts are good or bad, “acts undertaken by a prosecutor in preparing for the initiation of judicial proceedings or for trial, and which occur in the course of his role as an advocate for the State, are entitled to the protections of absolute immunity.” Buckley, 509 U.S. at 273.

         Although the word “prosecutor” is typically associated with criminal cases, “prosecutorial immunity” extends to Harrington's functions here because “the critical decision to institute proceedings to make a child a ward of the state is functionally similar to the prosecutorial institution of a criminal proceeding.” Miller v. Gammie, 335 F.3d 889, 898 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc); see also Meyers v. Contra Costa County Dep't of Soc. Servs., 812 F.2d 1154, 1157 (9th Cir. 1987).

         3. Application

         In her Complaint, Sanchez alleges:

Corbit Harrington signed off on an affidavit for emergency removal TLC [temporary legal custody by the State] with no preponderance of evidence full of she-said information. No bodily damage no marks left on children as clearly stated in petition. No bruising no physical injurys not current situation no life threatening removal needed. He signed a unconstitutional removal with evidence in petition showing a unconstitutional seizure of child proof in petition that YCSO forcefully entered my home with no warrant after social worker saw child was fine. No complaint to the condition of child upon investigation. No bodily harm to older child upon interview and petition shows older child is doing very well in the private school and doesn't want to leave it.
Ceirra rash and the dept then filed for custody of my son while keeping pertinent information out of the affidavate that would have shown the whole picture[.] . . .
When I took the dept evidence of the 4th of July showing my family was fine that my daughter just didn't want pulled out of a boarding school and my other daughter was pissed off helping her to lie they removed that date from petition to lie and make it look like an ongoing situation in my home.
[T]he dept petition says I don't leave marks on my child by one of there callers there was more they could have done other then showing up and forcefully taking my child . . . .
My son and daughter has now been tied up in hearings that have been continued and removed from my care based on that emergency court order for removal based on the depts. illegal removal violating fundamental rights and illegal seizures[.]

Compl. (Doc. 2) at 14, 17, 18.

         Initially, the Court found that Sanchez stated a claim against Harrington because she alleged he “signed off on an affidavit.” Prosecutorial immunity does not protect lawyers who act as witnesses. A prosecutor who endorses an affidavit personally attesting to the truth of primary facts underlying a petition is not ...

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