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Ferguson v. Short

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division

January 17, 2017

JOHN SHORT, et al., Defendants.


          NANETTE K. LAUGHREY United States District Judge.

         The Eighth Circuit has requested this Court to clarify its order [Doc 272] denying in part Defendants' motion for summary judgment [Doc. 201]. Specifically, the Court is to state whether qualified immunity should or should not be granted. The Eighth Circuit instructed:

[T]he district court of course can decide as a preliminary matter whether the detectives discussed the issue of qualified immunity in sufficient detail and with sufficient citations to undisputed record evidence to enable the district court to rule on the matter. . . . If it determines that the detectives did so, the district court can then enter an explicit order and judgment on the matter one way or the other.

         The Court now explicitly rules that Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity on Counts II - V and VII. Count I is not on appeal because the Motion for Summary Judgment was granted in Defendants' favor on Count I.

         I. Background [1]

         This case arose out of the 2001 murder of Kent Heitholt, a sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune. In 2004, Plaintiff Ryan Ferguson was convicted of the murder and sentenced to forty years in prison. His friend, Charles Erickson, testified against Ferguson after pleading guilty himself for participating in the Heitholt murder. Charles Erickson's remains in jail and his guilty plea has not been set aside, however, he has recanted the testimony he gave implicating Ryan Ferguson in the Heitholt murder. During the investigation there were also statements from Dallas Mallory, Megan Arthur and Richard Walker. Mallory and Arthur have now recanted or challenged some or all of their previous statements.

         Many years after Ferguson's conviction and incarceration, the Missouri Court of Appeals vacated Ferguson's sentence due to a Brady violation. Subsequently, Ferguson filed this lawsuit alleging that Defendant Officers John Short, Jeff Nichols, Jeff Westbrook, Bryan Liebhart, Latisha Stroer, and Lloyd Simons violated his constitutional rights in investigating and prosecuting him for the Heitholt murder.

         II. Discussion

         Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 201] and their Suggestions in Support [Doc. 202] request qualified immunity on all counts. This is demonstrated by Subpart V, A of their Suggestions, which explicitly lists the legal argument being raised by Defendants. [Doc. 202, p. 116]. The only legal argument identified is “Qualified Immunity.” Subpart V, A has many further subparts whose numbering is sometimes difficult to follow, but reviewed as a whole, Defendants requested qualified immunity as to Counts I-V and VII, and did not request summary judgment on any other issue.

         As to Counts IV & VII, Defendants are clearly not entitled to qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity does not apply to Count IV and Count VII because those counts raise state law claims and qualified immunity does not apply to state law claims or to the state defense of official immunity.

         As to Count V, the conspiracy claim, the Eighth Circuit has ruled that qualified immunity was not properly raised by the following statement:

Ferguson failed to present sufficient evidence to show he was deprived of a constitutional right or that [the detectives] reached an agreement to deprive him of his constitutional rights.

         The Court assumes that Defendants did preserve their qualified immunity argument that there cannot be a conspiracy claim if Ferguson's constitutional rights were not violated. Because the Court finds below that Counts II and III survive Defendants' motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity, Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity on Count V either.

         Counts II and III present a more nuanced question. As explained in Johnson v. Jones,515 U.S. 304 (1995), “[a] defendant, entitled to invoke a qualified immunity defense, may not appeal a district court's summary judgment order insofar as that order determines whether or not the pretrial record sets forth a genuine issue of fact for trial.” 319-320. This is because the purpose of qualified immunity is to short circuit the litigation process at an early stage so that public entities are not subject to the costs of unnecessary litigation. Id. at 315-317; see also Bartlett v. Fisher, 972 F.2d 911, 914 (8thCir. 1992). “Even if a defendant frames an issue in terms of qualified immunity, [the court] should determine whether he is simply arguing that ...

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