Lieutenant Pat Stockdale of the Fairview, Tennessee Police Department became concerned about the department’s relationship with two security firms and suspected that some officers had falsified documents to obtain secondary employment at the firms. He told Kim Helper, the district attorney for Williamson County, that the wrongdoing had “reached a whole new level” and asked Helper to refer the matter to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Less than two weeks after Stockdale raised these concerns, Police Chief Terry Harris announced his retirement. Helper had an opinion about who should replace him, which did not include Stockdale or Lieutenant Shane Dunning, both of whom she described as “wannabe Chiefs.” She texted an associate, offering to go to bat for her preferred candidate. “God help us,” she added, “if it’s Dunning or Stockdale.”
A few weeks later, the Fairview Board of Commissioners held a meeting, and the city manager requested that the Williamson County Sheriff investigate the Fairview Police Department. The city manager placed Stockdale and Dunning on administrative leave. Helper told a colleague that her preferred candidate now stood a better shot. The Sheriff’s Office issued a report that included allegations of criminal conduct – that Stockdale used a credit card to break into a building and then assaulted someone. Helper did not bring criminal charges.
Stockdale and Dunning filed a lawsuit against the City and several others. They alleged violations of their free-speech rights under the First Amendment and Tennessee law. In the interim, Scott Collins became the city manager. After reviewing the Sheriff’s report, he concluded that the allegations were “old and/or unsubstantiated” and did not justify firing Stockdale and Dunning. Collins reinstated the two lieutenants.
When the detective who led the Sheriff’s investigation emailed that “Pat and Shane will get $,” Helper replied, “How are they getting $$$. They have been on paid leave.” After the detective explained that they settled the lawsuit, Helper responded, “Thx I still won’t take their cases. So not sure how that will help them.”
Helper wrote the following to the city manager: “Mr. Collins, per our discussion, this Office has concerns about reports initiated/investigated solely by Officers Shane Dunning or Pat Stockdale. We will be required to turn that report over to defense counsel in cases where Officers Dunning and/or Stockdale are involved. Without independent corroboration from another law enforcement officer and/or independent witness, their testimony may be impeached.”
Collins disputed Helper’s assessment. But Helper refused to withdraw the email, insisting “she was comfortable” with it. Collins fired Stockdale and Dunning, explaining the email provided the “sole reason.”
Stockdale and Dunning sued Helper and the City of Fairview. They settled their claims against the City, leaving a First Amendment claim and state law claims against Helper. The case wound up in the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Court began by brushing aside Helper’s argument that she was entitled to “absolute immunity” for her actions. The Court ruled that “absolute immunity applies to functions intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process. The analytical key to prosecutorial immunity is advocacy – whether the actions in question are those of an advocate. So long as it is directly connected with the conduct of a trial, even administrative conduct stands behind the barricade of absolute immunity. Because we grant absolute immunity only sparingly, officials seeking its ironclad protection bear the burden of showing that qualified immunity does not suffice. Think of qualified immunity as a face mask and absolute immunity as a vaccine, with a presumption that qualified immunity is fit for the job.”
The Court then turned to whether Helper was shielded by the principle of qualified immunity. The Court noted that the defense “turns on whether Helper violated constitutional guarantees that were clearly established at the time she acted. We can resolve the claim on the ground that Helper did not violate any clearly established law. To meet this imperative, the claimant must show that case law put the issue beyond debate. That simply was not the case here.
“Ask what Helper would have seen had she consulted precedent before acting. She would have encountered a tangle of cases about absolute immunity, most of which favored the prosecutor as just shown. That it has taken numerous pages in the federal reporter to make sense of the issue sends a first signal that liability is far from clearly established. Because a reasonable prosecutor would have found the absolute immunity question a close one in this context, that strongly suggests that qualified immunity applies.
“Ask then what Helper would have seen in the case law when it comes to retaliation claims and the liability of decision makers versus non-decision makers. Recall that she did not have authority to fire Stockdale and Dunning. Collins made the call. She was not the decision maker. That matters.”
Stockdale v. Helper, 2020 WL 6372910 (6th Cir. 2020).
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