Roberts v. City of Fairbanks

Decision Date22 January 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-35938,18-35938
Citation947 F.3d 1191
Parties Marvin ROBERTS; Eugene Vent; Kevin Pease ; George Frese, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF FAIRBANKS; James Geier; Clifford Aaron Ring; Chris Nolan ; Dave Kendrick, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

TALLMAN, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from an order dismissing claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1985 on the ground that the claims were barred by Heck v. Humphrey , 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994). The primary question before us is whether § 1983 plaintiffs may recover damages if the convictions underlying their claims were vacated pursuant to a settlement agreement. The answer depends on whether such a vacatur serves to invalidate the convictions and thus renders the related § 1983 claims actionable notwithstanding Heck . We conclude that where all convictions underlying § 1983 claims are vacated and no outstanding criminal judgments remain, Heck does not bar plaintiffs from seeking relief under § 1983. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I

The following facts are alleged in the operative pleading or are subject to judicial notice:

On October 11, 1997, several men beat and kicked to death 15-year-old John Hartman on the streets of Fairbanks, Alaska. Plaintiffs Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Eugene Vent (collectively "Plaintiffs") were arrested by the Fairbanks Police Department, tried, and convicted of the murder and received prison sentences ranging from 30 to 77 years. The men—three Alaska Natives and one Native American—were between the ages of 17 and 20.

Several years after the convictions, an individual named William Holmes confessed to his involvement in the murder and named Jason Wallace and three other men as the actual perpetrators of the crime. Partly based on this confession, Plaintiffs filed post-conviction relief ("PCR") petitions in Alaska Superior Court in September 2013. The court ruled that the petitions stated a prima facie case of actual innocence, allowing Plaintiffs to proceed with discovery, which lasted two years.

On May 4, 2015, Jason Gazewood, counsel for Jason Wallace, wrote a letter to the post-conviction prosecutors,1 expressing his concerns with the likely outcome of a PCR hearing. Gazewood, a former Fairbanks prosecutor, wrote that their convictions were likely to be vacated and that a retrial would be "virtually unwinnable." He noted that the lead investigator of the murder, Detective Clifford Aaron Ring, had "edit[ed] his recordings in such a way as to not record exculpatory information while using coercive techniques to obtain confessions," and that the Fairbanks Police Department ("FPD") was well aware of Detective Ring's "use of deceptive interviewing techniques." For these reasons, among others, Gazewood warned the prosecutors that Plaintiffs were likely to seek—and win—tens of millions of dollars in a civil-rights suit against those involved in procuring their wrongful convictions.

After discovery, the state court held a five-week evidentiary hearing from October through November of 2015. The following testimony was adduced:

William Holmes testified that he, Jason Wallace, and three other men had murdered Hartman;
• Eleven witnesses corroborated Holmes' account;
• Four witnesses testified that Wallace had confessed to killing Hartman and provided consistent, interlocking accounts corroborating that fact;
Arlo Olson, the sole witness who had identified Plaintiffs as assailants in an unrelated attack on Frank Dayton the night of the Hartman murder, testified that FPD officers coerced him into giving a false statement;
Frank Dayton, the individual who had also been assaulted on the night of the murder, testified that his assailants had not been in Roberts' car, as had been asserted by the prosecution;
• An Alaska State Trooper testified that an investigation corroborated key elements of Holmes' confession and failed to find any evidence of Plaintiffs' guilt;
• Alibi witnesses provided accounts of the activities and whereabouts of Plaintiffs on the night of the murder, establishing that Plaintiffs were never together that night and could not have murdered Hartman or assaulted Dayton; and
• Forensic experts testified that the prosecution improperly advanced "evidence" that Frese's boot print matched the injuries on Hartman's face, stating that there was no scientifically reliable way to make this determination.

At the end of the evidentiary hearing, the judge told the parties that he would not render a decision for another six to eight months. Plaintiffs allege that prosecutors publicly stated that they would appeal any decision favorable to Plaintiffs all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court, thereby extending the men's already lengthy incarceration for an indefinite period.

Several weeks after the hearing and just before Christmas 2015, the prosecutors offered Plaintiffs a deal: the prosecution would consent to vacating the convictions and dismissing the charges, but only if all four plaintiffs agreed to release the State of Alaska and the City of Fairbanks (and their employees) from any liability related to the convictions.2 Plaintiffs agreed and entered into a settlement agreement with the State of Alaska and the City of Fairbanks (the "Settlement Agreement"). The Settlement Agreement was filed with the Alaska Superior Court, and the parties jointly stipulated that the court would be asked to vacate Plaintiffs' convictions. The Settlement Agreement also provided that "[t]he parties have not reached agreement as to [Plaintiffs'] actual guilt or innocence."

Nonetheless, Plaintiffs all signed the Settlement Agreement, which included the following key stipulations:

The petitioners stipulate and agree that the original jury verdicts and judgments of conviction were properly and validly entered based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The parties stipulate and agree that there is sufficient new evidence of material facts that a new trial could be ordered under AS 12.72.010(4).3
The parties stipulate and agree that this Court may immediately enter Orders vacating the Judgments of Conviction ... and awarding each Petitioner the relief of a new trial for each of the charges for which Petitioners were convicted.

On December 17, 2015, after a judicially supervised mediation, the Alaska Superior Court convened a settlement hearing with all parties present and heard from representatives of the victims and counsel for all parties. The court explained that its role was to "ministerially sign the orders necessary to [e]ffect the decision of the attorney general," and that, having determined that the settlement was procedurally proper, it "had no authority to ... review or to criticize" the attorney general's decision. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court vacated Plaintiffs' convictions, the prosecutors dismissed all indictments, and Vent, Frese, and Pease were released from prison. The parties inform us that no further prosecution of these men has ensued and no new trial was ever ordered following the 2015 hearing.

Despite a global release of all claims by Plaintiffs contained in the Settlement Agreement, this civil-rights lawsuit was later commenced. On May 14, 2018, Plaintiffs filed a Second Amended and Consolidated Complaint and Jury Demand seeking relief under § 1983 against the City of Fairbanks and the four named FPD officers: James Geier, Clifford Aaron Ring, Chris Nolan, and Dave Kendrick (collectively "Defendants"). Vent and Frese alleged Fifth Amendment violations, and all four plaintiffs asserted the following causes of action:

1. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 deprivation of liberty;
2. § 1983 malicious prosecution;
3. § 1983 Brady violations;
4. § 1983 supervisor liability;
5. § 1983 civil rights conspiracy;
6. § 1985(3) conspiracy;
7. § 1983 Monell claims against the City of Fairbanks;
8. § 1983 First Amendment right of access;
9. Spoliation of evidence;
10. Negligence; and
11. Intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress.

Plaintiffs requested a declaratory judgment that the Settlement Agreement is unenforceable, an award of compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney's fees.

On June 4, 2018, Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), or alternatively, for failure to join the State of Alaska as an indispensable party under Rule 12(b)(7).

The district court entered a final judgment and order dismissing Plaintiffs' negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress4 claims with prejudice,5 and dismissing the other ten claims without prejudice, under Rule 12(b)(6).6 Roberts v. City of Fairbanks , No. 4:17-CV-0034-HRH, 2018 WL 5259453, at *10 (D. Alaska Oct. 22, 2018). But the court denied leave to amend "as amendment would be futile at th[at] time." Id. The district court dismissed the claims as barred by Heck v. Humphrey , holding that vacatur of convictions pursuant to a settlement agreement was insufficient to render the convictions invalid in specific reliance on the parties' stipulation that "the original jury verdicts and judgments of conviction were properly and validly entered based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. at *8 (internal quotation marks omitted). As the court explained, "[a]ll the Superior Court did was vacate plaintiffs' convictions pursuant to the settlement agreements and the stipulation. The Superior Court did not declare their convictions invalid." Id. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

II

As previously noted, see supra n.1, we accept Plaintiffs' factual allegations as true and review de novo the Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal.

III
A

We agree with the district court that our analysis is guided by Heck v. Humphrey , the seminal case discussing whether a plaintiff may challenge the constitutionality of a conviction...

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