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Reinlasoder v. The City of Billings

Supreme Court of Montana

January 14, 2020

LARRY and TORI REINLASODER, Plaintiffs and Appellants,

          Submitted on Briefs: November 13, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DV 2016-1339 Honorable Donald L. Harris, Presiding Judge

          For Appellants: William A. D'Alton, D'Alton Law Firm, P.C., Billings, Montana

          For Appellees: Harlan B. Krogh, Elizabeth M. Varela, Crist, Krogh & Nord, PLLC, Billings, Montana


          Jim Rice Justice

         ¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion and shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

         ¶2 Larry Reinlasoder (Reinlasoder) was issued three citations for keeping a "potentially dangerous animal" in violation of the City of Billings (City or Billings) Municipal Code, § 4-405. City Animal Control Officers cited Reinlasoder after his Great Dane, in three separate incidents, allegedly killed two small dogs and injured another at a Billings dog park. Following issuance of the citations, Deputy City Attorney Jacquelyn Grewell (Grewell) prosecuted the case. At the request of Grewell, the Billings Municipal Court issued a subpoena to the Animal Clinic of Billings, requiring production of "any and all veterinary care records, including any and all billing and payment records associated with veterinary care, on all dogs owned by Larry Reinlasoder treated at your facility." Following a jury trial on the citations, Reinlasoder was acquitted of all three charges on February 19, 2016.

         ¶3 On February 20, 2016, Reinlasoder put the City on notice of a potential lawsuit arising from prosecution of the citations, and he and Tori Reinlasoder then initiated this action, asserting claims of negligence, abuse of process, defamation, intimidation under § 27-1-1503(2), MCA, malicious prosecution, conspiracy, and state constitutional claims. The City moved for summary judgment on all claims, and a hearing was held on January 23, 2019. The District Court granted summary judgment to the City on the basis of immunity, concluding Grewell and the City were entitled to prosecutorial immunity because Grewell acted within the scope of traditional prosecutorial functions while prosecuting the citations. Reinlasoders appeal.

         ¶4 The only issue we address is whether the District Court erred by granting summary judgment to Grewell and the City, and dismissed all claims brought in the action, on the basis of prosecutorial immunity.

         ¶5 "We review a district court's summary judgment ruling de novo. 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. The evidence, as well as all justifiable inferences drawn from it, must be viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. 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." Renenger v. State, 2018 MT 228, ¶ 6, 392 Mont. 495, 426 P.3d 559 (internal citations omitted).

         ¶6 Reinlasoders argue that Grewell, and the City, are not entitled to the benefit of prosecutorial immunity because Grewell acted outside her prosecutorial role when she initiated issuance of the subpoena duces tecum for the veterinary records of Reinlasoder's pets. Defendants reply that Grewell's action was properly within the course and scope of prosecution of the charges, rendering it susceptible to prosecutorial immunity that extends to the City as well. "A criminal prosecutor is 'absolutely immune from civil liability' when performing traditional functions of an advocate, 'regardless of negligence or lack of probable cause.'" Renenger, ¶ 10 (quoting Rosenthal v. Cnty. of Madison, 2007 MT 277, ¶¶ 29-30, 339 Mont. 419, 170 P.3d 493). "To determine whether a prosecutor . . . is entitled to immunity, courts look to the 'nature of the function performed.'" Renenger, ¶ 10 (quoting Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U.S. 118, 127, 118 S.Ct. 502, 508 (1997)). This functional analysis must consider "whether the prosecutor's conduct was quasi-judicial rather than an emotional analysis of whether the prosecutor had malice." Rosenthal, ¶ 30 (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 429-30, 96 S.Ct. 984, 994 (1976)). While prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity when acting in the traditional prosecutorial role as an advocate, Renenger, ¶ 10, a prosecutor acting as an administrator or investigator is entitled only to qualified immunity. Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273-74, 113 S.Ct. 2606, 2615-16 (1993).

         ¶7 After the citations were issued, Grewell was tasked with prosecuting the case and presenting it at trial. Grewell sought to marshal evidence for trial by requesting the issuance of a subpoena for Reinlasoder's pets' veterinary records pursuant to statutory authority. "[T]he prosecuting attorney, the defendant, or the defendant's attorney" may request the issuance of a subpoena. Section 46-15-101(1), MCA. "A subpoena may command the person to whom it is directed to produce the books, papers, documents, or other objects designated in the subpoena." Section 46-15-106(1), MCA. This is a tool of advocacy initiated, here, by the prosecutor, which must be issued by the clerk of court, subject to quashing or modifying by the court. Section 46-15-101(1), (3), MCA. As such, initiation of a subpoena is a traditional prosecutorial act. See Torres v. Goddard, 793 F.3d 1046, 1053-54 (9th Cir. 2015) (a prosecutor is "entitled to absolute immunity when procuring a search warrant, when the warrant 'sought evidence to prosecute the crimes charged in the indictment.' Because the prosecutor obtained the warrant to 'marshal evidence for trial,' he was performing a 'traditional function of an advocate for the [s]tate.' . . . [I]n order for the warrants to be issued, the attorney for the state was first required to make that determination, prepare a warrant with a supporting factual affidavit and seek issuance of the warrant by a judge."). Here, Grewell is entitled to absolute immunity because her actions were authorized by statute, within the traditional role of a prosecutor in marshalling evidence for trial, and imbued by judicial process involving issuance by the clerk of court. Section 46-15-106(1), MCA; § 46-15-101, MCA; Rosenthal, ¶ 29 ("[m]aintaining criminal charges are among the many duties of a prosecutor," and are part of "the quasi-judicial function.").

         ¶8 Reinlasoders also argue that prosecutorial immunity does not extend to other, non-prosecutorial employees, such as the animal control officers who issued the citations, and thus does not protect the City from liability arising from their conduct. In response, the City asserts this is a new argument that was not properly raised or preserved in the District Court, and should not be considered. Our review of the record confirms the City's position. Although referencing the animal control officers' investigation and issuance of the citations, Reinlasoders did not raise this claim of liability in their pleadings or their briefing and summary judgment arguments before the District Court. Consequently, we decline to address the claim And, concurring with the District Court's analysis, because our determination regarding prosecutorial immunity is dispositive, Reinlasoders' discovery motions and attorney fee requests are mooted, and need not be addressed.

         ¶9 We have determined to decide this case pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c) of our Internal Operating Rules, which provides for memorandum opinions. This appeal presents no constitutional issues, no issues of first impression, and does not establish new precedent or modify existing precedent. In the opinion of the Court, the case presents a ...

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