704 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2013), 12-1251, Knowlton v. Shaw

Docket Nº:12-1251.
Citation:704 F.3d 1
Opinion Judge:THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Alan D. KNOWLTON, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. Judith SHAW; Andrew Black; Glenn Griswold, Defendants, Appellees.
Attorney:Eric M. Mehnert, with whom Hawkes & Mehnert, LLP, was on brief, for appellant. Rosie M. Williams, with whom Edward R. Benjamin, Jr. and Thompson & Bowie, LLP, were on brief, for appellee Andrew Black. Martin J. Ridge, with whom Beagle & Ridge, LLC, was on brief, for appellee Judith Shaw. Russell ...
Judge Panel:Before TORRUELLA, BOUDIN,[*] and THOMPSON, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:January 04, 2013
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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704 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2013)

Alan D. KNOWLTON, Plaintiff, Appellant,

v.

Judith SHAW; Andrew Black; Glenn Griswold, Defendants, Appellees.

No. 12-1251.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

January 4, 2013

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Eric M. Mehnert, with whom Hawkes & Mehnert, LLP, was on brief, for appellant.

Rosie M. Williams, with whom Edward R. Benjamin, Jr. and Thompson & Bowie, LLP, were on brief, for appellee Andrew Black.

Martin J. Ridge, with whom Beagle & Ridge, LLC, was on brief, for appellee Judith Shaw.

Russell B. Pierce, with whom Norman, Hanson & DeTroy, LLC, was on brief, for appellee Glenn Griswold.

Before TORRUELLA, BOUDIN,[*] and THOMPSON, Circuit Judges.

THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

An investigation into the questionable business practices of Appellant Alan D. Knowlton's employer, Bankers Life and Casualty Co. (" Bankers Life" or " the Company" ), eventually led the Maine Bureau of Insurance (" the Bureau" ) and the Maine Attorney General's Office (" the AG's Office" ) to Knowlton's front door. In exchange for Knowlton accepting responsibility for his own unlawful conduct, Appellees Judith Shaw, Glenn Griswold and Andrew Black (collectively, " the state officials" ), representing the Bureau and the AG's Office, agreed to take no further action against Knowlton. That promise turned out to be short-lived, however, when they agreed to Knowlton's termination in a separate agreement with Bankers Life. Knowlton appeals the district court's dismissal of his complaint against the state officials. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

As this case comes before us on a grant of a motion to dismiss, we treat as true all well-pleaded facts, viewing those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom for him. Gagliardi v. Sullivan, 513 F.3d 301, 305 (1st Cir.2008). We recite only the relevant facts.

In or around 2001, the Bureau began investigating Bankers Life's improper marketing practices targeting elderly consumers. Shaw, the Bureau's Deputy Superintendent, became involved and initiated a parallel investigation into Bankers Life's sales practices. Griswold, Director of the Consumer Healthcare Division of the Bureau, led that investigation. In or around January 2005, after finding that Bankers Life had engaged in improper sales practices in Maine, Assistant Attorney General Black, Shaw and Griswold began negotiating with Bankers Life to resolve those claims.

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Bankers Life was not the only one on the state officials' radar, however. Shaw, Griswold and Black quickly turned their attention to Knowlton, the Company's Branch Sales Manager in Bangor, Maine, after learning about his November 2004 sales recruitment meeting. At that meeting, he distributed materials representing that Bankers Life had an " A" rating by A.M. Best Company,1 when its rating was actually a " B÷ ÷ ." In response to an attendee's comment that he was pleased about the " A" rating, Knowlton said he hoped to see it improve.

On the heels of the investigation into Knowlton's actions, Knowlton entered into a consent agreement with the AG's Office and the Bureau to resolve licensing violations associated with the sales recruitment meeting and his conversation with the potential recruit. In the agreement, Knowlton admitted that he violated the Maine Insurance Code, Me.Rev.Stat. tit. 24-A, § 1, et seq. , by distributing materials containing a misleading representation about Bankers Life's financial condition and by acknowledging the attendee's comment about the A.M. Best Company rating. In addition to accepting responsibility for those violations, he agreed to submit to a 60-day suspension of his insurance producer license and a 270-day period of license probation, pay a civil penalty of $750.00, and comply with other requirements regarding recruiting materials and the reporting of consumer complaints. In exchange, the Bureau and the AG's Office agreed to " forgo pursuing further disciplinary measures or other civil or administrative sanctions against [him] for the violations" described in the agreement.

Not one week passed before the Bureau and the AG's Office entered into a separate consent agreement with Bankers Life to resolve the claims against it. During their negotiations, the Bureau accepted Bankers Life's proposal that the branch managers of its South Portland and Bangor branch offices (which included Knowlton's position as the Bangor branch manager) be terminated. Thus, the agreement called for Bankers Life to " relieve the managers of its South Portland and Bangor branch offices of their positions as branch managers." 2 Bankers Life terminated Knowlton's position as branch manager on April 14, 2005.3

Knowlton's complaint asserts claims against Shaw, Black and Griswold in their individual capacities for violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2). Specifically, the complaint alleges that by agreeing to Bankers Life's termination of Knowlton's position as branch manager, the appellees deprived Knowlton of continued employment with the Company without due process under § 1983. The complaint adds that Shaw, Black and Griswold violated his rights under § 1985(2) by participating in a conspiracy with the Bureau and Bankers Life to deprive him of his rights to challenge the termination provision in the consent agreement.

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The state officials moved to dismiss the complaint on several grounds, including absolute immunity for the § 1983 claim. In granting the motion, the district court agreed that absolute immunity protected the state officials from liability. The court further concluded that Knowlton failed to plead a plausible § 1985(2) claim, and rejected his argument that the state officials were judicially estopped from denying liability under § 1983 based on a prior civil suit Knowlton had filed against the State for breach of contract (more on that later). Knowlton now appeals.

DISCUSSION

We review de novo the grant of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Feliciano-Hernández v. Pereira-Castillo, 663 F.3d 527, 532 (1st Cir.2011), cert. denied, __ U.S. __, 132 S.Ct. 2742, 183 L.Ed.2d 615 (2012).

Absolute Immunity

We first consider whether the district court erred in dismissing Knowlton's due process claim on the basis that the state officials had absolute immunity from suit.

While " [t]he presumption is that qualified rather than absolute immunity is sufficient to protect government officials in the exercise of their duties," Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 486-87, 111 S.Ct. 1934, 114 L.Ed.2d 547 (1991), " there are some officials whose special functions require a full exemption from liability." Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 508, 98 S.Ct. 2894, 57 L.Ed.2d 895 (1978).4 Judges and prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity when functioning in their official capacities. Butz, 438 U.S. at 508-10, 98 S.Ct. 2894. Prosecutors, for example, are absolutely immune for actions, taken as advocates for the State, which are closely associated with the judicial process such as initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430-31 & n. 33, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976); Burns, 500 U.S. at 479, 111 S.Ct. 1934. That absolute immunity, as Knowlton concedes, extends to non-prosecutor officials of government agencies " performing certain functions analogous to those of a prosecutor." Butz, 438 U.S. at 515, 98 S.Ct. 2894. Absolute immunity, however, is not available to either prosecutors or agency officials whose actions are primarily administrative or investigative in nature and unrelated to their functions as advocates in preparing for the initiation of a prosecution or for judicial proceedings. Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273, 113 S.Ct. 2606, 125 L.Ed.2d 209 (1993); see Burns, 500 U.S. at 495, 111 S.Ct. 1934 (no absolute immunity for prosecutor providing legal advice to police regarding interrogation practices).

In considering whether absolute immunity attaches to an official's conduct, we employ a " functional approach," Buckley, 509 U.S. at 269, 113 S.Ct. 2606; Harrington v. Almy, 977 F.2d 37, 40 (1st Cir.1992) ( " [T]he availability of absolute immunity turns on a functional analysis." ), which looks to the " nature of the function performed," not the identity of the actor who performed it. See Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 229, 108 S.Ct. 538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988); Buckley, 509 U.S. at 269, 113 S.Ct. 2606;

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Frazier v. Bailey, 957 F.2d 920, 931 n. 12 (1st Cir.1992) ( " Absolute immunity depends not on the titles of officials but their functions." ). Officials claiming absolute immunity, like the state officials here, bear the burden of proving their actions warrant that protection. Buckley, 509 U.S. at 274, 113 S.Ct. 2606.

Knowlton argues that the district court got it wrong: negotiating and executing the consent agreements to resolve the civil violations against Bankers Life and Knowlton, he argues, were not prosecutorial-type functions protected by absolute immunity, but rather were actions taken in the state officials' administrative and investigative capacities which do not afford them absolute immunity. The question before us is whether the state officials' actions were, as the district court found, prosecutorial in nature to warrant absolute immunity. We agree that they were.

Shaw and Griswold, as representatives of the Bureau, have the duty and authority to enforce Maine's insurance laws, and through the AG (Black), may " invoke the aid of the Superior Court through proceedings" to enforce any action taken by the Bureau or pursue criminal prosecution based on violations of the Code...

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