660 Fed.Appx. 185 (4th Cir. 2016), 15-2153, Lane v. Anderson

Docket Nº:15-2153
Citation:660 Fed.Appx. 185
Opinion Judge:PER CURIAM:
Party Name:JAMES LANE, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. SHERIFF JOHN W. ANDERSON; MAYOR & CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE, Defendants -- Appellees, and COL. MARCUS L. BROWN, Defendant. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION OF MARYLAND; PUBLIC JUSTICE CENTER, INC., Amici Supporting Appellant
Attorney:Howard Benjamin Hoffman, Rockville, Maryland, for Appellant. Jason L. Levine, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Annapolis, Maryland; Jason Robert Foltin, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. Steven H. Goldblatt, Director, Shon Hopwood, Appellate Litigation ...
Judge Panel:Before KING, DIAZ, and THACKER, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:August 17, 2016
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 185

660 Fed.Appx. 185 (4th Cir. 2016)

JAMES LANE, Plaintiff - Appellant,

v.

SHERIFF JOHN W. ANDERSON; MAYOR & CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE, Defendants -- Appellees, and COL. MARCUS L. BROWN, Defendant. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION OF MARYLAND; PUBLIC JUSTICE CENTER, INC., Amici Supporting Appellant

No. 15-2153

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

August 17, 2016

Argued May 12, 2016.

UNPUBLISHED

Editorial Note:

Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit. (See Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure Rule 32.1)

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. (1:14-cv-03739-RDB). Richard D. Bennett, District Judge.

AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED.

ARGUED:

Howard Benjamin Hoffman, Rockville, Maryland, for Appellant.

Jason L. Levine, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Annapolis, Maryland; Jason Robert Foltin, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Steven H. Goldblatt, Director, Shon Hopwood, Appellate Litigation Program, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

Brian E. Frosh, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee Anderson.

George A. Nilson, City Solicitor, William R. Phelan, Jr., Chief Solicitor, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee Mayor and City Council of Baltimore.

Deborah A. Jeon, Sonia Kumar, Nicholas Steiner, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland; Debra Gardner, Tassity Johnson, PUBLIC JUSTICE CENTER, Baltimore, Maryland, for Amici American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland and Public Justice Center.

Before KING, DIAZ, and THACKER, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

PER CURIAM:

James Lane (" Appellant" ) appeals the district court's dismissal of his complaint against the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (" Baltimore City" ) and the Sheriff of Baltimore City, John W. Anderson in his official and individual capacities (" Sheriff Anderson" ) (collectively, " Appellees" ). Appellant, a deputy sheriff at the time, was shot in the face during the execution of an arrest warrant. After the shooting incident, Appellant voiced doubts, alleging possible friendly fire and an official cover-up of that possibility, and thereafter, Sheriff Anderson fired him. Appellant then sued Appellees, claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights.

The district court dismissed Appellant's complaint, holding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction, Sheriff Anderson was entitled to qualified immunity and Eleventh Amendment immunity, and Baltimore City was not liable for Sheriff Anderson's employment actions because he was not a final policymaker for Baltimore City.

For the reasons that follow, we affirm the dismissal of Appellant's claim against Baltimore City. But because subject matter jurisdiction exists and Sheriff Anderson is not entitled to immunity, we reverse and remand in all other respects.

I.

A.

Appellant became a deputy sheriff with the Baltimore City Sheriff's Office (" BCSO" ) in 2003. On September 15, 2008, while executing an arrest warrant with other law enforcement officers from the Warrant Apprehension Task Force, Appellant suffered a gunshot wound to the face. Purportedly, the subject of the arrest warrant (the " Suspect" ) shot Appellant. Another officer then shot the Suspect, killing him. The subsequent internal investigation of the incident concluded that it was the Suspect who shot Appellant. But Appellant still had his doubts, as he suspected another law enforcement officer accidentally shot him. When Appellant expressed his concerns to his superiors, they " told him to forget about it." J.A. 8.1 When Appellant and two other deputy sheriffs continued to question the shooting, they were all transferred out of the task force.

On December 15, 2010, Appellant expressed his reservations about the shooting in interviews with certain media outlets -- namely, Fox 45 News (television) and " Investigative Voice" (web-based). The interviews revealed not only Appellant's doubts about the investigation, but also his suspicion about a potential cover-up. Appellant also expressed his belief that the other officer he suspected had accidentally shot him lied about the incident because that officer had failed a polygraph examination.

Three months later, in March 2011, the BCSO administratively charged Appellant with six counts of prohibited conduct stemming from his interviews with the media. Ultimately, in December 2011, a hearing board found Appellant guilty of five of the six charges, including two counts for engaging in conduct that reflected unfavorably upon the BCSO, two counts for representing the BCSO without permission, and one count for publicly criticizing the BCSO. He was found not guilty of making a false statement. The hearing board made a non-binding recommendation of a five-day suspension without pay to Sheriff Anderson.

Sheriff Anderson declined to follow the recommendation and instead terminated Appellant. In explaining this decision, Sheriff Anderson said that he could " no longer trust [Appellant's] reliability and [Appellant's] credibility" ; Appellant's violations brought the BCSO " into disrepute" ; Appellant's appearances on television and the internet displayed " sullenness and anger" towards the BCSO; Appellant's criticisms and accusations of another officer lying were " divisive[] [and] disloyal to the mission of the [BCSO] and intended to undermine the effective operation of the [BCSO]" ; and Appellant had " become a polarizing force within the [BCSO]." J.A. 177-78.

B.

Appellant appealed his termination to the Maryland Circuit Court for Baltimore City, asserting that he was found guilty despite insufficient evidence, and that he was terminated for conduct that was both not charged and outside the record. The Maryland Circuit Court reversed the termination and ordered reinstatement, but on appeal, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, which considered " only . . . the ultimate sanction imposed," J.A. 72, upheld Appellant's termination.

Thereafter, on December 1, 2014, Appellant filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland against Sheriff Anderson, in his official and individual capacities, and Baltimore City.2 Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Appellant claimed retaliatory discharge in violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Additionally, he claimed violations of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Appellant sought injunctive relief to permit his reinstatement as a deputy sheriff, declaratory relief, and money damages.

Appellees moved to dismiss the complaint, and the district court granted the motions. See Lane v. Anderson, No. 1:14-cv-3739, 2015 WL 5136035 (D. Md. Sept. 1, 2015). The district court, reasoning that Appellant was seeking federal review of a state-court decision, held that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Appellant's injunctive relief claims pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman3 doctrine. See Id. at *8.

The district court further concluded that Sheriff Anderson, in his individual capacity, was entitled to qualified immunity because, at the time he terminated Appellant, the law was not clearly established that doing so was a violation of Appellant's First Amendment rights. See Lane, 2015 WL 5136035, at *6-7. Finally, the district court determined Sheriff Anderson enjoyed Eleventh Amendment immunity from the claim for monetary damages brought against him in his official capacity because, pursuant to Maryland law, he was an arm of the state. See Id. at *4-6.

As for Baltimore City's involvement, the district court reasoned that Baltimore City could not be liable for Sheriff Anderson's actions because Sheriff Anderson was a Maryland official, not an official acting on behalf of Baltimore City.4 See Lane, 2015 WL 5136035, at *8.

Appellant timely appealed.

II.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

A.

As an initial matter, Appellant challenges the district court's determination that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Because the jurisdictional question is a " threshold issue," we address it before proceeding to the merits of the appeal. Elyazidi v. SunTrust Bank, 780 F.3d 227, 232 (4th Cir. 2015). We review challenges to subject matter jurisdiction de novo. See Flame S.A. v. Freight Bulk Pte. Ltd., 807 F.3d 572, 580 (4th Cir. 2015).

B.

Appellant argues that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which would deprive us of jurisdiction if applicable, does not apply here because he is not challenging the state court's decision. See Davani v. Va. Dep't of Transp., 434 F.3d 712, 718 (4th Cir. 2006). Rather, he seeks relief for the termination that Sheriff Anderson imposed upon him. We agree.

Pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, district courts are generally barred from reviewing state-court decisions. See D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 483 n.16, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 415-16, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923). Notwithstanding that premise, federal courts may still entertain claims the state court examined, so long as those claims do not challenge the state-court decision itself. See Elyazidi, 780 F.3d at 233 (claims not challenging the state-court judgment do not present a jurisdictional bar). Instead, " [t]he Rooker--Feldman doctrine . . . is confined to 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." Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., ...

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