Court Opinion: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for Aug. 7

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Clark v. Murch, et al.

Police officers in Durango, Colorado, arrested Christopher Clark. Local prosecutors pursued a criminal case against him. Shortly before the trial, the prosecution dismissed the case. Clark then filed this 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit against the police officers and prosecutors. The district court concluded, because there was probable cause to arrest Clark, his claims should be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

A 10th Circuit panel out of Denver affirmed the decision on the alternative grounds that the officer defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and the prosecutor defendants were entitled to absolute immunity.

According to the 10th Circuit opinion, to evaluate a complaint’s sufficiency under Rule 12(b)(6), a court generally may review only the complaint itself, citing the 10th Circuit decision Gee v. Pacheco. But a court may also consider documents referenced in the complaint if the parties do not dispute their authenticity and they are central to the plaintiff’s claims, the 10th Circuit opinion noted. In addition to the allegations in Clark’s third amended complaint, the operative complaint here, the magistrate judge and the district court considered police reports, transcripts from state-court proceedings and police body camera recordings the officers submitted with their motion to dismiss. Taken together in the light most favorable to Clark, these materials alleged the following.

The victim reported a white man in his late thirties or early forties approached him at night in an alley and asked for money. The man wore a puffy black jacket and probably had facial hair. The victim denied having money and got into his car. The man hit one of the car windows with a hard object, like a knife or flashlight, the 10th Circuit opinion noted. The victim drove away and called the police.

Although the victim described the suspect, he also told an officer “it was dark” when the encounter occurred and he “didn’t get a real good look” at him. But he thought he would recognize the man if he saw him again. The police initially showed the victim a photo of a man who they thought may have committed the crime, but the victim didn’t identify that man as the perpetrator.

Officers searching the area encountered Clark about two hours after the victim reported the crime. Clark, a white man then in his early forties, was wearing dark clothing and had a box cutter in his pocket. The police photographed Clark and the box cutter. One officer showed the photos to the victim and reported to the other officers the victim confirmed Clark attacked him and used the box cutter on the car window. 

Clark alleged before showing the victim photos of him and the box cutter, the officer said, “We’re pretty sure we got the guy who did this because he fits the bill as someone who would do this. We just need you to confirm it,” the 10th Circuit opinion noted. After viewing the photos, the victim said, “That makes sense, I guess it is him.” 

The police arrested Clark for aggravated robbery or attempted aggravated robbery. At a preliminary hearing, a judge found probable cause only for menacing. The prosecution ultimately dismissed the case just days before the scheduled trial.

Clark filed this lawsuit against the police officers and prosecutors involved in his arrest and prosecution. He claimed violations of the Fourth and 14th Amendments for false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and denial of the right to a fair trial. He alleged the police fabricated the victim’s identification, the prosecutors presented false testimony against him in court and the district attorney failed to adequately train and supervise his deputies. The defendants all moved for dismissal. The officers claimed qualified immunity. The prosecutors claimed absolute and qualified immunity.

The magistrate judge concluded Clark’s claims must fail because there was probable cause to arrest and prosecute him, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine barred his claims and the prosecutor defendants had absolute immunity. The magistrate judge recommended the district court dismiss his claims. The district court, relying only on the first ground — the existence of probable cause as barring the claims — accepted the recommendation and dismissed the case. Clark appealed.

The 10th Circuit concluded the Rooker-Feldman doctrine didn’t bar Clark’s suit. It turned to the merits and concluded the district court correctly dismissed the claims.

According to the opinion, “Rooker-Feldman is a jurisdictional prohibition on lower federal courts exercising appellate jurisdiction over state-court judgments.” It applies only in “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments,” the opinion added citing the decision Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp. It prohibits federal claims seeking “to modify or set aside a state-court judgment,” citing the 10th Circuit decision Mayotte v. U.S. Nat’l Bank Ass’n.

Rooker-Feldman didn’t apply here. Clark didn’t seek to modify or set aside a state-court judgment. The state court never entered a judgment against him since it dismissed his prosecution. Although the state court found probable cause, the orders it entered before dismissing the case didn’t implicate Rooker-Feldman, the opinion noted, citing the 8th Circuit decision Webb ex rel. K.S. v. Smith.

The 10th Circuit reviewed Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal de novo, citing the decision Serna v. Denver Police Dep’t. It accepted as true all well-pleaded facts in Clark’s complaint, viewed them in the light most favorable to him and drew all reasonable inferences in his favor, the opinion noted citing the 10th Circuit decision Brooks v. Mentor Worldwide LLC. “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face,’” the court wrote citing the decisions Ashcroft v. Iqbal, Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly and Strain v. Regalado.

Because Clark’s criminal prosecution was dismissed before trial, the district court correctly dismissed his claim he was denied a fair trial, the opinion noted, citing the 10th Circuit decision Morgan v. Gertz. The 10th Circuit turned to his remaining claims — false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. Clark didn’t dispute the district court’s conclusion the existence of probable cause will defeat these claims. He challenged the district court’s determination the police had probable cause to arrest him.

The 10th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the defendant officers on the alternative ground they were entitled to qualified immunity due to lack of a constitutional violation under established law.

The magistrate judge concluded the prosecutor defendants enjoyed absolute immunity. The prosecutors reasserted immunity on appeal. Although the district court didn’t address prosecutorial immunity, the 10th Circuit exercised its discretion to consider it as an alternative basis to affirm, citing the decision Elkins v. Comfort.

Absolute immunity covers “acts undertaken by a prosecutor in preparing for the initiation of judicial proceedings or for trial,” the 10th Circuit opinion noted, citing the decision Buckley v. Fitzsimmons. It extends to claims alleging inadequate training and supervision on matters “directly connected with the conduct of a trial,” the opinion noted, citing the decision Van de Kamp v. Goldstein. Clark sued the prosecutors based on their conduct preparing for and participating in court proceedings. Absolute immunity protected that conduct. It also protected the district attorney’s training and supervision related to that conduct, the appeals court found.

The 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

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