Elwood v. Rice County, CX-87-1597

CourtSupreme Court of Minnesota (US)
Citation423 N.W.2d 671
Docket NumberNo. CX-87-1597,CX-87-1597
PartiesKenneth L. ELWOOD, et al., Respondents, v. COUNTY OF RICE, et al., Respondents, Stanley Pacolt, et al., Appellants.
Decision Date06 May 1988

Page 671

423 N.W.2d 671
Kenneth L. ELWOOD, et al., Respondents,
COUNTY OF RICE, et al., Respondents,
Stanley Pacolt, et al., Appellants.
No. CX-87-1597.
Supreme Court of Minnesota.
May 6, 1988.

Page 672

Syllabus by the Court

1. Deputy sheriffs who conducted a warrantless entry in plaintiff's home in the factual setting of this matter are entitled to qualified immunity from suit under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983.

2. Deputy sheriffs are also entitled to common law official immunity from trespass and battery claims.

Page 673

3. The trial court properly granted summary judgment for defendants on the merits from claims alleging assault, battery, false arrest and false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Mark J. Condon, Jon K. Iverson, Minneapolis, for Stanley Pacolt, et al.

David L. Einhaus, Owatonna, for Kenneth Elwood.

James R. Keating, Faribault, for Rice County et al.

Heard, considered and decided by the court en banc.

POPOVICH, Justice.

This case arrives on the certified question restated essentially as follows: Should a peace officer who is acting within qualified immunity for purposes of an action under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 be granted the same qualified immunity from liability for state tort actions alleging trespass and battery?

The case stems from a domestic dispute investigation by two Rice County deputy sheriffs. Plaintiffs sued the officers, alleging assault, battery, trespass, false arrest and false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and deprivation of constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. After discovery, the trial court granted summary judgment for defendants on all state claims except trespass and one battery claim, and also found the deputies had qualified immunity from suit on the Section 1983 claims. Uncertain about the status of the two surviving tort claims, the court certified the above question as important and doubtful pursuant to Rule 103.03(h), Minn.R.Civ.App.P. Plaintiffs appealed the underlying Section 1983 immunity decision as well as the judgment against them on their other state claims. We find (1) defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the Section 1983 claim; (2) the federal immunity doctrine does not control state common law claims, but defendants in this case are nevertheless entitled to immunity under state law on the two remaining claims; and (3) the trial court properly granted judgment for defendants on the other tort claims.


Plaintiffs are Sandra and Kenneth Elwood, whose son Clifford was involved in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife, Shirley Parkos Elwood. Clifford and Shirley married and divorced twice. After the second divorce in March 1983, Clifford still hoped to reconcile with Shirley and often spent nights at her house. During the week before October 27, 1983, Shirley claims Clifford physically abused and threatened her, at one point forcing her to submit to sexual intercourse by holding a knife to her neck.

On October 27, 1983, Shirley obtained an ex parte temporary order for protection, which provided that Clifford be "excluded from the premises of Petitioner's household" and "restrained from committing acts of domestic abuse against Petitioner, or anyone else, minor or adult, living in Petitioner's household." Rice County Deputy Sheriff Barry Hendrickson served the order on Clifford at work that afternoon. Clifford told Hendrickson he had plans to take the children to a movie that night, and Hendrickson advised him to have someone else telephone Shirley, or to call her but "just to get the business taken care of and then leave her alone."

That evening, Shirley and the children went to Shirley's parents' house, fearing Clifford's reaction to the order. Clifford called her there and urged her to meet and talk with him. According to Shirley, he said he had a gun in his car and if she refused to meet him he would come to her parents' house and "he didn't know what would happen if he had to come up there." While on the phone, Shirley wrote a note to her mother, asking her to call the sheriff. Mrs. Parkos did so, and told the dispatcher Clifford had a gun, had threatened Shirley with it twice before, and at that moment was threatening himself.

Deputy Hendrickson, who had served the protective order, got the call and drove to the Parkos residence to find Shirley still on

Page 674

the phone with Clifford. While one of the children took the phone, Shirley explained to Hendrickson that Clifford was at his parents' home. According to Hendrickson, Shirley said Clifford had told her that if she wouldn't see him "it would be all over with." She wasn't sure if Clifford meant the relationship, his own life, Shirley's life, or her family's life. Shirley also told Hendrickson that Clifford had threatened suicide earlier in the week and he carried a gun in his car. Deputy Sheriff Stanley Pacolt arrived as a backup, and Shirley told him essentially the same story.

After instructing Shirley and her mother to keep Clifford on the phone, the officers left for the Elwood residence. They pulled into the Elwoods' driveway with their lights off. They then walked around the south side of the house, where through a window Officer Hendrickson saw a woman sitting at the kitchen table. Proceeding to the door, Officer Pacolt saw a man through a curtained window and knocked. Plaintiff Kenneth Elwood opened the door about one foot and said, "What can I do for you?"

At this point, according to Kenneth, Pacolt burst through the door, shoved Kenneth against the wall, and told him to "shut up and just stay out of it." Kenneth claims the officers offered no identification or explanation, but the officers claim they said there was a problem with Clifford and Kenneth invited them in. Pacolt walked swiftly toward Clifford, who was talking on the phone across the kitchen. Pacolt was carrying a shotgun in one hand, but handed it back to Hendrickson standing near Kenneth. Kenneth tried to step away from the wall, saying, "What's going on?" but Hendrickson allegedly shoved him back. Hendrickson claims he simply held up his hand to stop Kenneth from coming up behind Officer Pacolt. Sandra Elwood also claims she stood up when Pacolt entered and he told her to "sit down and stay there."

Pacolt told Clifford to hang up the phone and, after two or three requests, Clifford complied. An argument ensued about whether the protective order barred phone calls. Neither the deputies nor Clifford had a copy of the order, and Pacolt's calls to the county attorney and judge who signed the order brought no answers. Hendrickson told Kenneth he was free to go, and the situation eventually calmed down. Not being sure that Clifford violated the protective order, the officers made no arrests and left.


Though the certified question goes to the scope of Section 1983 qualified immunity, plaintiffs appeal the immunity ruling on which the question rests. That issue is central to the case and we address it first.

Qualified or "good faith" immunity is an affirmative defense available to public officials sued for damages under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 815, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2736, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). The United States Supreme Court recognized the doctrine in Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967), where it permitted police officers to raise a "good faith" defense in a Section 1983 action. The court later extended that decision to high-ranking state executives, and implied that the immunity analysis included both objective and subjective factors. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90 (1974). Soon after Scheuer, the Court explicitly adopted a two-factor test, whereby the immunity defense failed if officials either knew or reasonably should have known their action violated plaintiffs' clearly established constitutional rights or if they maliciously intended that result. Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 322, 95 S.Ct. 992, 1000, 43 L.Ed.2d 214 (1975).

Then in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Court restructured the standard to eliminate the subjective component. Harlow, 457 U.S. at 816-18, 102 S.Ct. at 2737-38. Subjective "good faith," the Court noted, is usually a fact question for the jury, while the purpose of immunity is to protect government officials from the burdens of discovery and trial. Id. The test for immunity became whether the officials' conduct violated "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable

Page 675

person would have known." Id. at 818, 102 S.Ct. at 2738. 1 See generally, Note, Qualified Immunity for Government Officials: The Problem of Unconstitutional Purpose in Civil Rights Litigation, 95 Yale L.J. 126 (1985). After Harlow, it is clear immunity is a purely legal question conceptually distinct from a defense to the merits of plaintiffs' claim. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2817, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985). An order denying immunity is immediately appealable. Id.; Anderson v. City of Hopkins, 393 N.W.2d 363, 364 (Minn.1986).

The Court applied the Harlow test to police officers in Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986), stressing objective reasonableness as the guiding principle. Under Malley, the "good faith" inquiry is confined to the question "whether a reasonably well-trained officer would have known" the act was illegal. Malley, 475 U.S. at 344, 106 S.Ct. at 1098, citing United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 922, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 3420, 82 L.Ed.2d 677 (1984). Immunity should be recognized "if officers of reasonable competence could disagree on this issue." Malley, 475 U.S. at 341, 106 S.Ct. at 1096.

Most recently, the Court further explained the Harlow and Malley analysis, rejecting the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals' view that immunity should be denied simply because the right allegedly violated was clearly established. Anderson v. Creighton, ---...

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