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Stanley v. Gallegos

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 8, 2018

DAVID N. STANLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
DONALD GALLEGOS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GREGORY B. WORMUTH United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Gallegos's renewed Motion for Summary Judgment on Qualified Immunity Grounds (doc. 196) and Defendant Gallegos's Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 160) on the basis of Eleventh Amendment and absolute prosecutorial immunity. The Court has reviewed the Motions and related briefing (docs. 197, 202, 165), and has heard oral argument on the Motions (docs. 205, 207, 208).

         For the reasons explained more fully below, the Court finds: (1) the Eighth Judicial District Attorney's Office is an arm of the state of New Mexico and Plaintiff's official-capacity § 1983 claims against the office are therefore precluded by Eleventh Amendment immunity; (2) Defendant Gallegos was not acting in his role as a prosecutor when he took the actions at issue and is thus not entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity on any of Plaintiff's claims; (3) Plaintiff has met his burden of showing that Defendant Gallegos violated both Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process and his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures in taking the actions at issue; (4) however, Plaintiff has not met his burden to show that Defendant Gallegos violated clearly established law which entitles Defendant Gallegos to qualified immunity on Plaintiff's individual-capacity § 1983 claims for monetary relief; and (5) Plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief are not foreclosed by either qualified immunity or the Eleventh Amendment.

         Therefore, the Court will GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART Defendant Gallegos's Motion for Summary Judgment asserting Eleventh Amendment and absolute prosecutorial immunity (doc. 160), and will GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART Defendant Gallegos's Motion for Summary Judgment on Qualified Immunity Grounds (doc. 196).

         I. Background

         The central dispute giving rise to the events underlying this litigation is whether a road traversing Plaintiff's property, Red Hill Road, is public or private. Plaintiff is a rancher whose ranch (“Stanley Ranch”) is located in both Colfax and Mora Counties, New Mexico.

         On September 6, 2002, Defendant Donald Gallegos, the New Mexico District Attorney representing Taos, Colfax, and Union Counties, sent Plaintiff a letter stating that he had received information that Plaintiff was planning to place a gate across Red Hill Road. Defendant Gallegos believed Red Hill Road was a public road pursuant to 43 U.S.C. § 932, also known as Revised Statute 2477 (“R.S. 2477”). See doc. 158 at 5, 9; doc. 158-2 at 7-9. Accordingly, the letter warned Plaintiff that Red Hill Road “is a public road and any placement of a gate or any other obstruction will be dealt with appropriately, including, but not limited to, the filing of criminal charges against you.” Doc. 125, Ex. C at 1.

         Sometime thereafter, Plaintiff, believing Red Hill Road to be his private property, erected a gate to block access to the road by the public. He placed the gate at the county line where Red Hill Road crosses from Mora County into Colfax County. Nine years after sending the first letter, on August 3, 2011, Defendant Gallegos sent Plaintiff another letter on official stationery informing Plaintiff that he had no authority to place a gate on the road and “requesting” that he remove it. See doc. 160-1 at 17. The letter further stated that, “Should you fail to do so, I will take any and all steps necessary to make sure that the gate is opened and/or removed.” Id. On August 11, 2011, Plaintiff filed a quiet title action in New Mexico's Eighth Judicial District Court, claiming title to Stanley Ranch, including the portion of Red Hill Road that traverses the ranch. Doc. 21 at 2.[1] Thirteen days later, on August 24, 2011, Defendant Gallegos, along with Defendant Ed Olona and several other individuals including officers from the Mora and Colfax County Sheriff's Departments, went to the gate on Red Hill Road. Doc. 125 at 1- 2. Together, they removed the obstruction from the road by cutting the locked chain securing the gate, and by removing a barbed-wire fence and T-posts set up at the cattle crossing. Doc. 21 at 3; doc. 40 at 4. The T-posts, fence, and gate itself were left at the scene, although not intact. See id.

         On August 26, 2011, Defendant Gallegos sent Plaintiff a letter on his official letterhead informing him:, “Since I did not hear back from you regarding the letter I had sent you, I have taken action to open the gate on Red Hill Road.” See doc. 21, Ex. C. Defendant Gallegos reiterated that Red Hill Road “is a public road” and that if Plaintiff locked the gate or obstructed the cattle guard again, he would “take action to have criminal charges filed against [Plaintiff] for obstructing a public road.” Id. Plaintiff did not heed this letter and instead erected the gate again soon thereafter. On September 10, 2011, a Colfax County Deputy Sheriff, Tony Aguirre, went to Red Hill Road along with Defendant Olona and others to again unlock the gate. Plaintiff alleges that the second unlocking was done at Defendant Gallegos's direction. Doc. 21 at 3-4. County Sheriff Patrick Casias swore by affidavit that, based on Defendant Gallegos's previous legal advice that the road was public, Sheriff Casias instructed Deputy Aguirre to remove the obstruction after receiving a phone call from Defendant Olona that the gate was again locked. Doc. 40-1 at 3.

         On December 19, 2011, Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging various constitutional violations on the basis that Defendants' actions constituted (1) an unlawful taking of private property for public use without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment; (2) an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment; and (3) deprivation of his property without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. See doc. 21 at 5-7. In addition, Plaintiff alleged violations of the New Mexico Constitution on the same grounds and brought state law statutory trespass claims against various Defendants.

         The procedural history of this case is extensive and will not be recounted in its entirety here. Pertinent to the present motions, Defendant Gallegos moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity on January 30, 2015. Doc. 115. The Court denied that motion on August 25, 2015, ruling that Defendant Gallegos acted outside the scope of his authority as a district attorney when he removed the gate from Red Hill Road, and he was therefore not entitled to invoke qualified immunity. Doc. 167. The Court's qualified immunity ruling was appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on September 18, 2015. Doc. 176. On March 17, 2017, in a 1-1-1 decision, the Court of Appeals overturned the Court's ruling and remanded the case for a qualified immunity analysis absent application of a scope-of-authority exception. See doc. 191. The Court of Appeals denied Plaintiff's petition for a rehearing en banc on June 7, 2017.

         Prior to the appeal on the qualified immunity issue, on July 10, 2015, Defendant Gallegos filed a separate Motion for Summary Judgment in which he asserted both Eleventh Amendment Immunity and absolute prosecutorial immunity as alternative grounds for dismissing the claims against him. See doc. 160. That motion was fully briefed but remained pending while the qualified immunity issue was on appeal. See doc. 165.

         Following remand, the parties were ordered to file supplemental briefing regarding Defendant Gallegos's assertion of qualified immunity, which was completed on August 24, 2017. See docs. 194, 196, 197, 202. On September 11, 2017, the Court held a motion hearing regarding all pending motions in the case, including Defendant Gallegos's renewed Motion for Summary Judgment on Qualified Immunity Grounds (doc. 196) and his Motion for Summary Judgment on the basis of Eleventh Amendment and absolute prosecutorial immunity (doc. 160). See docs. 195, 198, 205. Both motions are now ripe for ruling.[2]

         II. Standard of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), this Court must “grant summary judgment if the movant shows that 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). The movant bears the initial burden of “show[ing] ‘that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.'” Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986)). Once the movant meets this burden, the non-moving party is required to designate specific facts showing that “there are . . . genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

         However, summary judgment motions based upon the defense of qualified immunity are reviewed differently from other summary judgment motions. Qualified immunity is “designed to protect public officials from spending inordinate time and money defending erroneous suits at trial.” Clark v. Edmunds, 513 F.3d 1219, 1222 (10th Cir. 2008). Therefore, when a public official is entitled to qualified immunity, the entitlement relieves the official from bearing any of the burdens of litigation, including discovery. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 672 (2009). The Supreme Court “has directed the lower federal courts to apply qualified immunity broadly, to protect from civil liability for damages all officers except ‘the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law, '” in order to avoid unduly inhibiting officers in performing their official duties. Wilson v. City of Lafayette, 510 F. App'x 775, 780 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986), and Medina v. Cram, 252 F.3d 1124, 1127 (10th Cir. 2001)). The qualified immunity standard allows government officials “ample room for mistaken judgments, ” shielding them from liability for reasonable error. Applewhite v. U.S. Air Force, 995 F.2d 997, 1000 (10th Cir. 1993) (quoting Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229 (1991)). Thus, qualified immunity is “applicable unless the official's conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009). For that reason, “'clearly established law' should not be defined ‘at a high level of generality.” Pauly v. White, 137 S.Ct. 548, 552 (2017) (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 724 (1987)). Instead, “the clearly established law must be ‘particularized' to the facts of the case.” Id. (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)).

         Whether the motion for summary judgment is based on qualified immunity or not, the Court decides the motion on the basis of the facts as construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Consequently, it must keep in mind three principles. First, the Court's role is not to weigh the evidence, but to assess the threshold issue of whether a genuine issue exists as to material facts requiring a trial. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249. “An issue is ‘genuine' if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. An issue of fact is ‘material' if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Thom v. Bristol Myers Squibb Co., 353 F.3d 848, 851 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal citation omitted).

         Second, the Court must resolve all reasonable inferences and doubts in favor of the non-moving party, and construe all evidence in the light most favorable to the non- moving party. See Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014); see also Riggins v. Goodman, 572 F.3d 1101, 1107 (10th Cir. 2009) (noting that courts generally “accept the facts as the plaintiff alleges them” when considering whether a plaintiff has overcome defendant's assertion of qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage). However, “a plaintiff's version of the facts must find support in the record” at the summary judgment stage. Thomson v. Salt Lake Cty., 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009).

         Third, the court cannot decide any issues of credibility. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. “[T]o survive the . . . motion, [the non-movant] need only present evidence from which a jury might return a verdict in his favor.” Id. at 257.

         III. Plaintiff's Official-Capacity Claims for Damages are Barred by Eleventh Amendment Immunity

         A. Legal Standard

         The Eleventh Amendment provides: “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” Const. amend. XI. Only a state or “arms” of a state may assert the Eleventh Amendment as a defense to suit in federal court. Sutton v. Utah State Sch. for Deaf & Blind, 173 F.3d 1226, 1232 (10th Cir. 1999).

         “It is inherent in the nature of sovereignty not to be amenable to the suit of an individual without its consent.” Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 13 (1890). Thus, the Eleventh Amendment has long been recognized as rendering states and state entities immune to suit in federal court generally. See College Sav. Bank v. Fla. Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd., 527 U.S. 666, 669 (1999). However, that immunity “is not absolute” and there are two circumstances in which it does not apply: (1) where Congress has “authorize[d] such a suit in the exercise of its power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment” and (2) where a state has “waive[d] its sovereign immunity by consenting to suit.” Id. at 670.

         “As long as the government entity receives notice and an opportunity to respond, ” a claim brought against a public official in his official capacity “is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985); see also Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989) (“a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office.”). Congress did not abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity when it enacted 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 345 (1979). Accordingly, states (and state officials sued in their official capacities) cannot be sued for damages under § 1983.[3] Will, 491 U.S. at 71. Therefore, whether Eleventh Amendment immunity bars Plaintiff's official-capacity claims against Defendant Gallegos depends on whether those claims have been brought against a state entity or a municipal entity.

         Defendant Gallegos asserts that the Eleventh Amendment precludes the official- capacity claims against him because he is a state actor who acted as an official of the Eighth Judicial District Attorney's Office. See doc. 160 at 8-10. The law governing whether an entity is an “arm of the state” for purposes of Eleventh Amendment immunity against official-capacity claims:

turns on whether the [entity] is to be treated as an arm of the State partaking of the State's Eleventh Amendment immunity, or is instead to be treated as a municipal corporation or other political subdivision to which the Eleventh Amendment does not extend. The answer depends, at least in part, on the nature of the entity created by state law.

Sturdevant v. Paulsen, 218 F.3d 1160, 1164 (10th Cir. 2000) (alteration in original) (quoting Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280 (1977)). In short, “the inquiry with regard to a particular entity is whether it is more like a county or city than . . . like an arm of the state[.]” Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted). Moreover, though it is “ultimately a matter of federal law, arm-of-the-state status must be determined in each case by reference to the particular state laws characterizing the entity.” Id.

         In the Tenth Circuit, determining whether a particular governmental entity is an “arm of the state” requires an examination of the following four factors: “(1) the characterization of the governmental unit under state law; (2) the guidance and control exercised by the state over the governmental unit; (3) the degree of state funding received; and (4) the governmental unit's ability to issue bonds and levy taxes on its own behalf.” Sutton, 173 F.3d at 1232 (citing Ambus v. Granite Bd. of Educ., 995 F.2d 992, 994 (10th Cir. 1993)). These factors are commonly called the “Mt. Healthy factors, ” after the Supreme Court decision which first applied these factors to reject an Ohio school district board's assertion of Eleventh Amendment immunity. Previously in the Tenth Circuit, the third and fourth Mt. Healthy factors had been characterized as the second prong of a two-pronged inquiry, which required the court to “examine[] the extent of financing the agency receives independent of the state treasury and its ability to provide for its own financing. The governmental entity is immune from suit if the money judgment sought is to be satisfied out of the state treasury.” Watson v. Univ. of Utah Med. Ctr., 75 F.3d 569, 574-75 (10th Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted).

         This approach does not mean that a plaintiff can avoid Eleventh Amendment immunity by simply asking the Court to craft its order so that a money judgment is not paid out of the state treasury. Rather, the Tenth Circuit has cautioned courts “to focus on legal liability for a judgment, rather than [the] practical, or indirect, impact a judgment would have on a state's treasury.” Duke v. Grady Mun. Schs., 127 F.3d 972, 981 (10th Cir. 1997). In other words, “'it is the entity's potential legal liability, rather than its ability or inability to require a third party to reimburse it, or to discharge the liability in the first instance, that is relevant” in determining whether the entity is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. Id. (emphasis added) (quoting Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 431 (1997)). Or, as the Supreme Court explained in Doe: “The question is not who pays in the end; it is who is legally obligated to pay the judgment that is being sought.” 519 U.S. at 428 (quotations and citation omitted).

         B. Analysis

         Defendant Gallegos asserts that, when he took the actions underlying this litigation, he was acting in his official capacity as an official of a state agency-namely, the Eighth Judicial District Attorney's office. See doc. 160 at 8-10. Thus, because “state entities and state employees acting in their official capacities are entirely immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment, ” he argues that the official-capacity claims against him must be dismissed. See Id. at 9.

         In response to Defendant Gallegos's assertion of Eleventh Amendment immunity, Plaintiff initially argued that Defendant Gallegos “was acting ‘on behalf of' Colfax County, and not the State of New Mexico, ” when he took the allegedly unconstitutional actions underlying this litigation. Doc. 165 at 1. This argument compelled the Court to hold a hearing regarding whether Colfax County was a necessary party to the case pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 19, because “[i]f the Court were to accept Plaintiff's theory, Colfax County could be exposed to municipal liability stemming from Plaintiff's official-capacity § 1983 claims.” Doc. 206 at 2 (citing Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of N.Y.C., 436 U.S. 658, 707-08 (1978)). However, during the December 8, 2017 hearing on the possible necessity of joinder of the County, Plaintiff's counsel clarified that the official-capacity claims in this case are brought against the governmental entity of the Eighth Judicial District Attorney's Office for the State of New Mexico, not against Colfax County.[4] This explicit concession forecloses the need to analyze whether Defendant Gallegos acted “on behalf of” the State or the County, which might otherwise be necessary to determine against which entity Plaintiff brings his official-capacity claims. See McMillian v. Monroe Cty., Ala., 520 U.S. 781, 786 (1997).

         As noted above, an official-capacity suit “is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. at 165. Unlike Colfax County, the district attorney's office is an arm of the state and is therefore entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity against Plaintiff's official-capacity claims. Jackson v. N.M. Pub. Def.'s Office, 361 F. App'x 958, 961-62 (10th Cir. 2010) (unpublished) (agreeing with the trial court that the office of the district attorney in New Mexico is an arm of the state and thus “protected from suit by the Eleventh Amendment”); Macias v. Griffin, 612 F. App'x 532, 534 (10th Cir. 2015) (unpublished) (“Dismissal of the claims against [New Mexico's Fifth Judicial] [D]istrict [A]ttorney's [O]ffice was also appropriate because it is a state office that is both protected by the Eleventh Amendment and not subject to suit under § 1983”); Vacek v. Court of Appeals, Santa Fe, N.M., 325 F. App'x 647, 649 (10th Cir. 2009) (unpublished) (holding that “the New Mexico courts and agencies listed as defendants, ” which included the Second Judicial District Attorney's Office, “are not entities against which 42 U.S.C. § 1983 . . . claims may be lodged given Eleventh Amendment immunity”); Ysais v. Richardson, Civ. No. 07-0287, JB/RLP, 2008 WL 4861697, at *5 (D.N.M. July 9, 2008) (holding that the Thirtieth Judicial District Attorney's Office in New Mexico is a state entity immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment); Luginbuhl v. City of Gallup, , Civ. No. 12-1199, KG/SMV, 2016 WL 10592141, at *5 (D.N.M. Jan. 28, 2016) (same holding regarding the Eleventh Judicial District Attorney's Office of New Mexico); James v. Dist. Attorney's Office, Civ. No. 16- 1183, MV/GBW, 2017 WL 3405555, at *3 (D.N.M. Mar. 24, 2017) (proposing the Court find that the Ninth Judicial District Attorney's Office is a state entity protected from § 1983 claims by the Eleventh Amendment), adopted in Order Adopting Report and Recommendations, doc. 12 in 16-cv-1183 MV/GBW (D.N.M. Apr. 28, 2017). Plaintiff points to no authority to support a finding that a New Mexico District Attorney's Office is not a state agency. See generally doc. 165. Rather, as noted above, he asks the Court to analyze whether Defendant Gallegos acted “on behalf of” Colfax County instead of the State of New Mexico. Id. at 1, 5-10. Such an analysis is not appropriate in light of Plaintiff's concession that his official-capacity claims are not brought against Colfax County.

         The only apparent alternative would be a finding that, for the purposes of this case, the Office of the District Attorney for the Eighth Judicial District was a county agency. Yet Plaintiff's counsel has repeatedly disclaimed such an argument. The following colloquy between Plaintiff's counsel and the Court during the joinder hearing is illustrative:

MR. HAYS: . . . [Colfax] [C]ounty . . . has never expressed an interest in coming into this case. They don't want to have anything to do with this[.]
THE COURT: Well, they may feel a lot different if I say [Defendant Gallegos is] a county official and he gets qualified immunity as an individual . . . but he was acting as a final policymaker for [the county] . . . and, therefore, there's a judgment against the county.
MR. HAYS: Well, again, I don't think it would be a judgment against the county. It would be a judgment against Mr. Gallegos in his official capacity, not against Colfax County.
It may be collectable [from the county] through a constitutional provision . . . but it's not a judgment against Colfax County. It's not a finding that Colfax County or the Board of County Commissioners of Colfax County did anything wrong.
It would be a finding that Mr. Gallegos . . . in his official capacity, in his office, violated [Plaintiff's] constitutional rights, not that the county did. . . .
We enumerated all the factors that showed [Defendant Gallegos] was, in fact, acting on behalf [of] or [in] the interest of a county here [in Plaintiff's Eleventh Amendment immunity briefing]. But that doesn't mean that Colfax County is somehow liable or responsible or implicated.
THE COURT: Then who is?
MR. HAYS: The office of the district attorney.
THE COURT: And so this judgment is against their budget?
MR. HAYS: Well, it's a judgment against them. And the . . . constitutional provision [of Article 8, Section 7 of the New Mexico Constitution] says:
“No execution shall issue upon a judgment rendered against any officer of any county recovered against him in his official capacity and for which the county is liable, but the same should be paid out of the proceeds of a tax levy.”
MR. HAYS: It's a judgment against the official which the county pays through a special tax levy. That's what the constitutional provision is.
THE COURT: . . . I'm familiar with that. That's what happens in every case against the county. That doesn't - I mean, I've never had somebody say to me before, “Well, that means it's not against the county.” Of course it's against the county. It's against the taxpayers of the county. . . .
MR. HAYS: Well, [] there's a process where the county pays it. But . . . it's a judgment against that [] government official and against his entity.
THE COURT: . . . [I]f a tax levy against the residents of a county is not a judgment against the county, who is it against?
MR HAYS: Again, . . . I see the judgment and the collection process as being different. I think the judgment is against Mr. Gallegos in his official capacity and against his office independently. It's collected through this process [set forth in Article 8, Section 7 of the New Mexico ...

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