Russell v. Richardson, 092518 FED3, 17-2255

Docket Nº:17-2255
Opinion Judge:KRAUSE, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:JAMILA RUSSELL; L.T. v. SUPERIOR COURT MARSHAL CHRISTOPHER RICHARDSON, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS; SUPERIOR COURT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS, Superior Court of the Virgin Islands, Superior Court Marshal Christopher Richardson, in his individual and official capacity, Appellants
Attorney:Gordon C. Rhea, Esq. [Argued] Richardson Patrick Westbrook & Brickman Yvette D. Ross-Edwards, I, Esq. Law Office of Yvette Ross-Edwards Counsel for Plaintiff-Appellees Jamila Russell and L.T. Paul L. Gimenez, Esq. [Argued] Superior Court of the Virgin Islands Office of General Counsel Counsel for...
Judge Panel:Before: KRAUSE, ROTH, and FISHER, Circuit Judges
Case Date:September 25, 2018
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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JAMILA RUSSELL; L.T.

v.

SUPERIOR COURT MARSHAL CHRISTOPHER RICHARDSON, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS; SUPERIOR COURT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS,

Superior Court of the Virgin Islands, Superior Court Marshal Christopher Richardson, in his individual and official capacity, Appellants

No. 17-2255

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

September 25, 2018

Argued: May 22, 2018

Appellants On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands (D.V.I. Civ. No. 1-15-cv-00049) Honorable Anne E. Thompson, U.S. District Judge.

Gordon C. Rhea, Esq. [Argued] Richardson Patrick Westbrook & Brickman Yvette D. Ross-Edwards, I, Esq. Law Office of Yvette Ross-Edwards Counsel for Plaintiff-Appellees Jamila Russell and L.T.

Paul L. Gimenez, Esq. [Argued] Superior Court of the Virgin Islands Office of General Counsel Counsel for Defendant-Appellant Superior Court of the Virgin Islands and Christopher Richardson

Ian S.A. Clement, Esq. Su-Layne U. Walker, Esq. Office of Attorney General of Virgin Islands Department of Justice Counsel for Defendant-Appellee Government of the Virgin Islands

Before: KRAUSE, ROTH, and FISHER, Circuit Judges

OPINION

KRAUSE, Circuit Judge.

In this tragic case, after Appellee Jamila Russell enlisted the help of the Virgin Islands Superior Court and its Court Marshals with her truant teenage son, L.T., Deputy Marshal Chris Richardson allegedly shot him at his home, unarmed and mostly undressed, rendering him a quadriplegic. Russell filed suit and the District Court denied the motions of Richardson and the Superior Court to dismiss on various immunity grounds. In this interlocutory appeal, we consider, among other things, whether judicial immunity extends to protect an officer from a suit challenging the manner in which he executed a court order. Because we, like the District Court, conclude it does not, and the District Court's thorough and careful opinion properly disposed of the motions in almost all respects, we will affirm except as to Appellees' claim for gross negligence, for which the Virgin Islands has not waived sovereign immunity and which thus should be dismissed on remand.

I.

Background

A.

Factual Background1

At the time of the conduct at issue in this case, L.T. was 15 years old and had been designated by the Virgin Islands Superior Court a "Person in Need of Supervision" (PINS), meaning a "child" who, among other things, "habitually disobeys the reasonable demands of the person responsible for the child's care and is beyond their control." V.I. Code Ann. tit. 5, § 2502(23). That designation also subjected L.T. to a court order directing him to "follow the reasonable rules of his mother while living with her." JA 18. Apparently, however, his mother continued to have problems with his behavior.

One day, concluding she needed "assistance" with ensuring L.T.'s compliance, Russell contacted the Superior Court and "requested that [L.T.] be brought before the judge to answer for his behavior." JA 18. According to the complaint, she also "advised that her son was at home in his bed." JA 18. In response to her request, several Superior Court Marshals, including Deputy Marshal Christopher Richardson, arrived at Russell's home later that day. L.T. was at that point "relaxing in his room, in his underwear and unarmed." JA 19. The precise sequence of events that unfolded is unclear at this stage, but, according to the complaint, "Richardson shot [L.T.] under circumstances that were unjustified and an excessive use of force since [L.T.] was unarmed and did not threaten bodily harm to the marshals or third parties as he was attempting to run past the marshals."[2] JA 19.

L.T. was airlifted to Puerto Rico for medical treatment, but the shooting rendered him a quadriplegic.

B. Procedural History

Russell eventually filed this action on behalf of herself and L.T. (collectively, "the Family")[3] in the District Court of the Virgin Islands. The operative complaint included claims against Richardson under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for excessive force and under territorial law for negligence, gross negligence, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as claims against the Superior Court for negligence, negligent hiring and retention, and vicarious liability.4 As relevant to the claims at issue in this appeal, Richardson and the Superior Court (together, "Appellants") filed motions to dismiss under Federal Rules of Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), with Richardson arguing he enjoyed a form of absolute immunity known as "quasi-judicial" immunity and qualified immunity with respect to the § 1983 claim, and both parties arguing they enjoyed sovereign immunity with respect to the tort claims.

The District Court rejected those arguments. As to Richardson's claim of quasi-judicial immunity, the District Court acknowledged that many cases have granted such immunity to officers who have been sued for their role in enforcing court orders but determined that the reasoning behind those cases "d[id]n't cover shooting somebody." JA 69. The Court therefore held that absolute immunity did not apply. And while the Court recognized that the qualified immunity issue should be decided "at the earliest point possible in the case," JA 12; see Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991) (per curiam) (noting "the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation"), it found this case "too fact sensitive for [it] to make that kind of ruling now, without discovery," JA 85. Instead, it explained, Richardson would be permitted to renew the defense once a "fuller factual record ha[d] been developed." JA 12.

As to the sovereign immunity asserted by both defendants, the District Court recognized that, to bring a tort claim against the Virgin Islands Government, its departments, or its employees in their official capacities, a plaintiff must comply with the terms of the Virgin Islands Tort Claims Act, V.I. Code Ann. tit. 33, §§ 3401-3417, as a predicate to the courts' jurisdiction. But it rejected defendants' argument that the Family had failed to do so, either by filing an inadequate "notice of intention to file a claim" or by failing to file a "claim." "[S]ubstantial compliance with the statute is all that is required," JA 11 (quoting Brunn v. Dowdye, 59 V.I. 899, 910 (2013)), the Court observed, and the Family had "sufficiently complied, "[5] JA 11.

Following the denial of their motions to dismiss, Appellants filed an omnibus motion for reconsideration, clarification, and a more definite statement, and asked the District Court to stay discovery until both that motion and the forthcoming appeal to this Court had been resolved. But they soon withdrew the omnibus motion, and the District Court declined to issue a stay, ordering discovery to proceed "solely on the issue of . . . qualified immunity," JA 14. Appellants then filed this timely appeal. Appellants also filed a motion to stay discovery pending appeal, which we denied. Discovery continued and, by the time of oral argument in this case, was nearly complete.

II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

The District Court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). Under the collateral order doctrine, we have jurisdiction to review a denial of quasi-judicial or qualified immunity insofar as it turns on an issue of law. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 529 (1985); Hamilton v. Leavy, 322 F.3d 776, 782 (3d Cir. 2003). The question whether that doctrine also vests us with jurisdiction over a denial of the Virgin Islands' sovereign immunity has not previously been addressed by this Court, but for the reasons we will discuss in more detail below, we conclude that it does. See infra Part III.C.1.

We review de novo a denial of quasi-judicial, qualified, or sovereign immunity. Karns v. Shanahan, 879 F.3d 504, 512 (3d Cir. 2018); Dotzel v. Ashbridge, 438 F.3d 320, 324-25 (3d Cir. 2006).

III. Discussion

Appellants contend that the District Court erred in denying Richardson quasi-judicial immunity and qualified immunity and in denying them both sovereign immunity.6We address each of these three immunity doctrines below.

A. Quasi-Judicial Immunity

We start with Richardson's argument that he cannot be sued for using excessive force because, just as a judge enjoys absolute "judicial immunity" for an official act like issuing a PINS order, so too does Richardson enjoy "quasi-judicial" immunity for his official acts in enforcing that order. We briefly review the history of this immunity doctrine before turning to its application to this case.

1. The Quasi-Judicial Immunity Doctrine

Quasi-judicial immunity, as one might guess, evolved out of its...

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