Nation v. State, Dept. of Correction

Decision Date29 March 2007
Docket NumberNo. 31110.,31110.
Citation144 Idaho 177,158 P.3d 953
CourtIdaho Supreme Court
PartiesKevin NATION and Lisa Nation, husband and wife; Klinton Hust and Noel Hust, husband and wife; and Angela Grigsby, an individual, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. STATE of Idaho, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION; J.J. Rentie Jr.; George Miller; Greg Fisher; Jeff Henry; Al Ramirez; and John Does 1-5; County of Ada; Matt Stoppello; Gus Cahill, Defendants-Respondents.

White Peterson, P.A., Nampa, for appellants. Sarah Hart Arnett argued.

Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Attorney General and Greg Hollis Bower, Ada County Prosecuting Attorney, Boise, for respondents. Phillip J. Collaer, Deputy Attorney General and James K. Dickinson, Deputy Ada County Prosecuting Attorney argued.

BURDICK, Justice.

Appellants appeal from two district court orders granting summary judgment to Respondents on the Appellants' federal civil rights claims and state law claims. We affirm the grant of summary judgment, but vacate the award of attorney's fees below.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Appellants Kevin Nation, Klinton Hust and Angela Grigsby were employed as corrections officers at the Idaho State Maximum Security Institution (IMSI) by the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC). On May 3, 2002, these three officers were assaulted by inmate David Persons. Persons threw an unidentified liquid substance from his cell, hitting the officers' bodies and faces. Following this incident, the three officers completed worker's compensation forms. The information provided on these forms included the officers' home addresses and telephone numbers, marital status, birthdates and social security numbers.

The IDOC conducted an internal investigation into Persons's assault of the officers and determined that the matter should be turned over to the Ada County Sheriff (the sheriff's office) for further criminal investigation. During the internal investigation, the worker's compensation forms were gathered and then forwarded in a package of materials to the sheriff's office. The IDOC did not redact the three officers' personal information when it forwarded the worker's compensation forms. Initially, Lieutenant James Joe Rentie, Jr., conducted the internal investigation and gathered evidence. The results of this investigation were then reviewed by Jeff Henry, IMSI Captain of Security. At the time of the investigation Greg Fisher served as the IMSI warden and George Miller served as deputy warden. Ultimately, Fisher decided to refer the matter to the sheriff's office.

In turn, the sheriff's office referred the matter to the Ada County Prosecutor, who filed criminal charges against Persons. During these proceedings, Ada County Deputy Public Defender Gus Cahill was appointed to represent Persons. Matt Stoppello, Deputy Ada County Prosecutor, forwarded the unredacted worker's compensation forms to Cahill in response to a discovery request. Cahill then provided these forms to his client, Persons, who disseminated the personal information in these forms to other inmates.

Appellants Kevin Nation and his wife Lisa Nation, Klinton Hust and his wife Noel Hust and Angela Grigsby (collectively the corrections officers) then filed suit against the Respondents: IDOC, Al Ramirez, a supervisor of corrections officers at IMSI, Fisher, Rentie, Miller and Henry (collectively the IDOC defendants), and Ada County, Cahill and Stoppello. The complaint alleged violations of the corrections officers' civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; violations of the Idaho State Constitution; negligence; intrusion into the corrections officers' private affairs; public disclosure of private facts; and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Later, the district court allowed the corrections officers to amend their complaint to include two claims for retaliation.

The parties stipulated to dismiss Cahill. The district court then granted summary judgment to the county and Stoppello dismissing all of the corrections officers' claims. The district court also awarded costs and attorney's fees to Cahill, Stoppello and the county. After the corrections officers filed timely appeals from these two orders, this Court remanded the case to the district court for determination of the claims against the IDOC and IDOC personnel. The district court then granted summary judgment for these defendants and awarded them costs, but not attorney's fees. Once again, the corrections officers filed a timely notice of appeal.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, this Court uses the same standard employed by the trial court when deciding such a motion. Kolln v. Saint Luke's Regl. Med. Ctr., 130 Idaho 323, 327, 940 P.2d 1142, 1146 (1997). "[I]f the pleadings, depositions, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law" summary judgment is proper. I.R.C.P. 56(c). The burden is on the moving party to prove an absence of genuine issues of material fact. Evans v. Griswold, 129 Idaho 902, 905, 935 P.2d 165, 168 (1997). In addition, this Court views the facts and inferences in the record in favor of the non-moving party. Id.

This Court exercises free review over questions of law. Rahas v. Ver Mett, 141 Idaho 412, 414, 111 P.3d 97, 99 (2005) (citing Kelly v. Silverwood Estates, 127 Idaho 624, 631, 903 P.2d 1321, 1328 (1995)).

III. ANALYSIS

We will first examine whether the defendants were entitled to summary judgment on the corrections officers' section 1983 claims and then whether they were entitled to summary judgment on the correction officers' state law claims. Additionally, we will determine whether the district court erred by awarding attorney's fees and costs below and then determine whether we should award attorney's fees on appeal.

A. Section 1983 Claims

The corrections officers brought suit under section 1983 for violations of their constitutional right to privacy. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides that every person who acts under the color of state law to deprive another of a constitutional right shall be answerable to that person in a suit for damages.1 The correction officers argue that the district court erred by dismissing Stoppello and the county and then the IDOC defendants through summary judgment. The district court found that Stoppello was entitled to absolute immunity and that the county and IDOC defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Since different theories underpin immunity for Stoppello, the county and the IDOC defendants, we will analyze separately whether each is liable under section 1983.

1. Stoppello

"Section 1983, on its face admits of no defense of official immunity." Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 268, 113 S.Ct. 2606, 2612, 125 L.Ed.2d 209, 222 (1993). This statute, however, "is to be read in harmony with general principles of tort immunities and defenses rather than in derogation of them." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 418, 96 S.Ct. 984, 989, 47 L.Ed.2d 128, 136 (1976). The Supreme Court of the United States has recognized that some officials are entitled to absolute immunity from suit under section 1983. Buckley, 509 U.S. at 268-69, 113 S.Ct. at 2612-13, 125 L.Ed.2d at 222-23. The official seeking immunity bears the burden of proving he or she is entitled to absolute immunity because such immunity is justified by the function in question. Id. at 269, 113 S.Ct. at 2613, 125 L.Ed.2d at 223-24. Absolute immunity is only sparingly recognized for state actors. Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 224, 108 S.Ct. 538, 542, 98 L.Ed.2d 555, 563 (1988). It should not be extended "further than its justification would warrant." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 811, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2734, 73 L.Ed.2d 396, 406 (1982).

Prosecutorial immunity from section 1983 suits was first recognized in Imbler. There, the Court recognized that the common law rule of immunity was well settled, 424 U.S. at 424, 96 S.Ct. at 992, 47 L.Ed.2d at 139-40, and was based upon the concern that "harassment by unfounded litigation would cause a deflection of the prosecutor's energies from his public duties, and the possibility that he would shade his decisions instead of exercising the independence of judgment required by his public trust." Id. at 423, 96 S.Ct. at 991, 47 L.Ed.2d at 139. The Court then held that prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity for activities intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process — initiating a prosecution and presenting the state's case. Id. at 430-31, 96 S.Ct. at 994-95, 47 L.Ed.2d at 143-44. This approach focuses on the conduct for which immunity is claimed, not whether that conduct was lawful or may have caused harm. Buckley, 509 U.S. at 271, 113 S.Ct. at 2614-15, 125 L.Ed.2d at 224-25. This conduct can include actions away from the courtroom and includes acts which occur in the course of a prosecutor acting as an advocate for the state. Id. at 272-73, 113 S.Ct. at 2615-16, 125 L.Ed.2d at 225-26.

Finding immunity was error, the corrections officers assert, because Stoppello was not performing an advocacy role when he disclosed the unredacted forms in discovery, but rather was performing an administrative role. Stoppello contends that he was acting as an advocate for the state when he provided discovery to Persons, and therefore he is entitled to immunity. The issue for this Court to determine, then, is whether disclosing documents during criminal discovery is an act intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process that occurs when the prosecutor is acting as an advocate for the state.

Two other state appellate courts have examined a nearly identical issue — whether to afford prosecutors absolute immunity for discovery actions — and determined absolute immunity should apply. In Arizona v. Superior Court...

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