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Hartman v. Estate of Alford

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

September 19, 2019


          Submitted on June 10, 2019

          On Appeal from the 58th District Court Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. A-198,246

          Before McKeithen, C.J., Kreger and Horton, JJ.



         Stephen Hartman (Hartman) appeals the trial court's order granting The Estate of Joe Alford's (Alford) plea to the jurisdiction and motion for traditional summary judgment.[1] In six issues before the Court, Hartman argues that the trial court erred when it found that Alford had absolute prosecutorial immunity and therefore, could not be held liable for Hartman's claims of malicious prosecution and conspiracy. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         I. Background

         In a prior opinion, we provided a detailed background of this case. See Walker v. Hartman, 516 S.W.3d 71, 75–78 (Tex.App.-Beaumont 2017, pet. denied). Accordingly, we only discuss the background facts necessary for the resolution of this case. In May 2013, Hartman attempted to serve Judge Layne Walker of the 252nd Jefferson County District Court with process papers for a federal lawsuit. According to Hartman, he had sought to serve Walker at his residence, but Walker and Walker's son threatened him. Hartman then tried to serve Walker at his place of employment.

         Hartman arrived at Walker's courtroom to serve the process papers. Walker was on the bench, working the district court's docket for that morning. According to Hartman, he sat in the gallery of the courtroom and quietly approached the court's bailiff about serving Walker. Hartman asserts he never crossed the bar of the courtroom or attempted to serve Walker during a judicial proceeding and did not disrupt the judicial proceedings. Another bailiff told Hartman to leave, but he refused. Hartman was arrested and held all day in a holding cell behind the courtroom. Hartman's personal belongings were confiscated, including a camera pen that recorded a video of Hartman's arrest. Hartman alleged the bailiffs, Walker, and Walker's staff later illegally accessed the pen's recordings. While detained in the holding cell, Hartman was allowed to serve Walker in the court's jury room. Hartman stated that only after he was transferred to the Jefferson County Jail that evening did they inform him of the charges against him.

         The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department charged Hartman with Interfering with Public Duties and Disrupting a Public Meeting. Several lawyers and witnesses signed affidavits about Hartman's behavior and his arrest that day in the courtroom.[2]Jefferson County Court at Law Judge Lupe Flores appointed Attorney Joe Alford to act as District Attorney Pro Tem (DAPT) and transferred the case to Orange County. Alford, acting as a DAPT, prosecuted the case against Hartman in Orange County and charged Hartman with a "Class B misdemeanor of Hindering a Proceeding by Disorderly Conduct." See Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 38.13 (West 2016). Ultimately, the charges were dismissed.

         Hartman filed federal and state lawsuits against Walker, the bailiffs, sheriff's department employees, and the individuals who signed affidavits about Hartman's conduct. His federal lawsuit was dismissed. In his state lawsuit against Alford, Hartman alleges, among other things, that Alford "was [an] illegal DAPT prosecutor" acting on Walker's, the District Attorney's, and Judge Flores's orders and "undertook tortious misconduct[.]" Hartman argues this conduct constituted a "conspiracy" orchestrated by Walker, the Jefferson County District Attorney, and Flores to have Alford "maliciously prosecute Hartman" based on perjured affidavits. According to Hartman, Alford had no legal authority to prosecute him, and Alford knew from the beginning of his investigation that he was engaging in a "malicious and illegal prosecution." Hartman asserts that because Alford was a private attorney and not a government employee, he is not entitled to prosecutorial immunity, and thus does not have a defense under the Texas Torts Claims Act (TTCA). In Alford's fifth amended plea to the jurisdiction and motion for traditional summary judgment, he argues that he is entitled to "absolute prosecutorial immunity" against Hartman's state tort law causes of action.

         After a hearing, the trial court granted Alford's plea to the jurisdiction. Hartman timely filed this interlocutory appeal.

         II. Standard of Review

         Section 51.014 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code gives us jurisdiction over this interlocutory appeal of the trial court's granting of Alford's plea to the jurisdiction. See Tex. Civ. Prac & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(8) (West Supp. 2018).

         "Absolute prosecutorial immunity is properly asserted in a plea to the jurisdiction because it deprives the court of all subject matter jurisdiction over the case." Hays v. Campos, No. 13-15-00216-CV, 2015 WL 5135946, at *2 n.3 (Tex.App.-Corpus Christi Aug. 31, 2015, no pet.) (mem. op.) (citations omitted). A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea typically used to defeat a plaintiff's cause of action regardless of whether the claims have merit. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). We review a trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction based on immunity from suit under a de novo standard. Tex. Dep't of Parks and Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). When doing so, we examine the factual allegations in the pleadings and relevant jurisdictional evidence. See City of Elsa v. Gonzalez, 325 S.W.3d 622, 625–26 (Tex. 2010); Bland, 34 S.W.3d at 555. When pleadings are challenged by a plea to the jurisdiction, a court must determine whether the pleader has alleged facts affirmatively demonstrating the court's jurisdiction, and the court must liberally construe the pleadings. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226 (citing Tex. Ass'n of Bus. v. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 446 (Tex. 1993)). "However, if a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, we consider relevant evidence submitted by the parties when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issues raised, as the trial court is required to do." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227 (citing Bland, 34 S.W.3d at 555). In that situation, our review of a plea to the jurisdiction is much like a traditional motion for summary judgment. See id. at 228.

         III. Analysis

         A. Prosecutorial Immunity

         Hartman contends that Alford is not entitled to prosecutorial immunity because "Alford was an illegal prosecutor who knowingly joined an extra-judicial conspiracy to fabricate false criminal charges against [him]."[3] Prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity under common law. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 427 (1976). "Texas courts have followed federal courts and consistently held as a matter of law that absolute immunity extends to quasi-judicial officers, including prosecutors performing such typical prosecutorial functions as initiating criminal prosecution and presenting the State's case." Brown v. Lubbock Cty. Comm. Court, 185 S.W.3d 499, 505 (Tex.App.-Amarillo 2005, no pet.) (citing Oden v. Reader, 935 S.W.2d 470, 474–75 (Tex.App.-Tyler 1996, no pet.)). "Activities intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process, such as initiating a prosecution and presenting the State's case, are functions to which absolute immunity applies with full force." Lesher v. Coyel, 435 S.W.3d 423, 430 (Tex.App.-Dallas 2014, pet. denied) (citing Imbler, 424 U.S. at 430).

         Prosecutorial immunity has also been applied to bad acts performed by the prosecutor. See Imbler, 424 U.S. at 427 (explaining that absolute immunity applies to a prosecutor who engages in "malicious or dishonest action"); see also Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 489–90 (1991) (noting that "prosecutors and other lawyers were absolutely immune from damages liability at common law for making false or defamatory statements in judicial proceedings . . . and also for eliciting false and defamatory testimony from witnesses"); Lesher, 435 S.W.3d at 430–431 (applying absolute immunity to a prosecutor accused of withholding grand jury book from grand jury); Clawson v. Wharton Cty., 941 S.W.2d 267, 272 (Tex.App.-Corpus Christi 1996, pet. denied) (reasoning a prosecutor accused of taking bribes still enjoys absolute immunity because "[a]bsolute immunity will shelter a prosecutor even should he act maliciously, wantonly, or negligently") (citation omitted).

         This absolute immunity is effective against all civil lawsuits whether the lawsuit originates in federal court or state court and whether the allegations are lodged against the individual in his personal or official capacity. Clawson, 941 S.W.2d at 273; see also Lesher, 435 S.W.3d at 430; Brown, 185 S.W.3d at 505. Prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity for exercising their judgment in presenting evidence and in conducting trials in criminal cases. Imbler, 424 U.S. at 427. Allowing anything less than absolute immunity would result in an "adverse effect upon the criminal justice system" and "better to leave unredressed the wrongs done by dishonest officers than to subject those who try to do their duty to the constant dread of retaliation." See id. at 426, 428 (citations omitted). "[T]he alternative of qualifying a prosecutor's immunity would disserve the broader public interest. It would prevent the vigorous and fearless performance of the prosecutor's duty that is essential to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system." Id. at 427–428.

         Hartman alleges that because Walker and his deputies had the witnesses submit false affidavits, Alford engaged in an "extra-judicial conspiracy" by knowingly using the false affidavits to prosecute him. According to Hartman, the video ...

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