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Alvarez v. The City of Brownsville

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 26, 2017

GEORGE ALVAREZ, Plaintiff - Appellee
THE CITY OF BROWNSVILLE, Defendant-Appellant

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before STEWART, Chief Judge, and JOLLY and WIENER, Circuit Judges.

          WIENER, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff-Appellee George Alvarez pleaded guilty to assault on a public servant in Texas state court. Several years later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that he was "actually innocent" of the assault and set aside his conviction. Alvarez subsequently filed suit in federal court against the City of Brownsville ("City") and several law enforcement officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting, inter alia, a claim against the City grounded in Brady v. Maryland.[1] The district court granted summary judgment for Alvarez, concluding as a matter of law that the City violated his constitutional rights under Brady. After a damages-only trial, a jury awarded Alvarez $2 million. The City appeals. We reverse and render judgment of dismissal in favor of the City.

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         In November 2005, the Brownsville Police Department ("BPD") arrested Alvarez on suspicion of burglary and public intoxication, then placed him in a holding cell. After an altercation at the jail, Detention Officer Jesus Arias pressed charges against Alvarez "for assaulting him and causing him pain." Alvarez was charged with assault on a public servant, a third-degree felony. He pleaded guilty in state court in May 2006 and was given a suspended sentence of eight years of imprisonment and a sentence of ten years of community supervision. As a condition of community supervision, the court imposed "a term of confinement and treatment in a substance abuse felony punishment facility . . . for not less than 90 days or more than 12 months[.]" Alvarez did not complete the treatment program, so the court revoked his suspended sentence and ordered him to serve eight years of imprisonment.

         Several years later, videos of the altercation between Arias and Alvarez were discovered in the course of a separate § 1983 case with similar facts filed by another detainee against the City and Arias. In May 2010, Alvarez filed a writ of habeas corpus in state court, contending that the newly discovered videos-which, he claimed, BPD had withheld in violation of Brady- demonstrated that he was "actually innocent" of the alleged assault. After concluding that "there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the outcome of [Alvarez's] case would have been different, " the state district court recommended that the writ be granted and that Alvarez be given a new trial. Based on the state district court's findings of fact and its "own independent examination of the record, " the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded in October 2010 that Alvarez was "actually innocent of committing the offense in this cause." That court set aside his conviction for assault on a public servant. One week later, the state district court granted the state's motion to dismiss all charges against Alvarez.

         The following April, Alvarez filed this suit under § 1983 against the City, Arias, jail supervisor Sergeant David Infante, Chief of Police Carlos Garcia, Lieutenant Henry Etheridge, Jr., and Police Commander Roberto Avitia, Jr. Alvarez's pleadings asserted, inter alia, claims for fabrication of evidence and nondisclosure of exculpatory evidence under the Brady doctrine.

         The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment in August 2012, seeking dismissal of all of Alvarez's claims. Adopting the magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court denied the defendants' motion as to (1) the Brady claim against the City for nondisclosure of exculpatory evidence, and (2) the claim against Arias in his individual capacity for fabrication of evidence. The court granted summary judgment dismissing all of Alvarez's other claims and later dismissed the remaining claim against Arias pursuant to Alvarez's voluntary stipulation of dismissal.

         Alvarez and the City filed cross-motions for summary judgment in January 2014, addressing the three remaining issues identified by the district court: (1) whether a BPD policy of nondisclosure existed; (2) whether the BPD's failure to disclose the videos constituted a Brady violation; and (3) whether a BPD policy caused the Brady violation. The court granted Alvarez's motion for summary judgment and denied the City's, concluding that "Alvarez has established all substantive elements of a § 1983 municipal liability claim [under Brady] against the City[.]"

         The district court held a two-day jury trial in September 2014 limited to the quantum of damages. The jury awarded Alvarez $2 million in compensatory damages. The parties agreed to attorneys fees of $300, 000, and the court entered final judgment in favor of Alvarez in the amount of $2.3 million. The City subsequently filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law or, alternatively, for new trial or remittitur, which the court denied. The City timely appealed.

         II. Analysis

         As a threshold matter, the City contends that the district court should have granted summary judgment in its favor because Alvarez's guilty plea precluded him from asserting a Brady claim as a matter of law. The City's claim raises a pure question of law, so we review its challenge de novo.[2]

         We have held, in the contexts of direct appeals and habeas corpus, that a defendant who pleads guilty waives the right to assert a Brady claim. In Matthew v. Johnson, a habeas case, we held that the withholding of Brady material does not render a guilty plea invalid or involuntary.[3] We reasoned in Matthew that, "[b]ecause a Brady violation is defined in terms of the potential effects of undisclosed information on a judge's or jury's assessment of guilt, it follows that the failure of a prosecutor to disclose exculpatory information to an individual waiving his right to trial is not a constitutional violation."[4] We explained that the purpose of the Brady doctrine is to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial and concluded that Brady's "focus on protecting the integrity of trials suggests that where no trial is to occur, there may be no constitutional violation."[5] Relying on Matthew, subsequent ...

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