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The State of Iowa possesses sovereign immunity. The Eleventh Amendment provides states with immunity from suits. As such, Iowa and its employees can only be sued to the extent Iowa expressly waives its immunity. The Iowa Tort Claims Act (ITCA), Iowa Code ch. 669, is a statutorily defined waiver of sovereign immunity allowing certain claims to be filed against Iowa which fit within the ITCA's specified reach, and which do not fall within explicit exceptions where Iowa expressly retained its sovereign immunity.
Plaintiffs, Curtis W. McGhee, Jr., and Terry Harrington were convicted of murdering a retired police department captain who was working as a security guard. They were each sentenced to life imprisonment. However, in 2002, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed Harrington's conviction and remanded for a new trial, finding the prosecutor committed a Brady violation by failing to disclose evidence of an alternative suspect. The current prosecutor, Matthew Wilber, concluded it would be impossible to retry Harrington and also agreed to move to vacate McGhee's conviction. McGhee agreed to enter an Alford plea to second degree murder in exchange for a sentence of time served. With the agreements, McGhee was released. Subsequently, both plaintiffs brought civil rights actions against defendants, the current and former prosecutors and the Assistant County Attorney, arguing that the defendants perjured and fabricated testimony and withheld evidence in violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. Plaintiffs also alleged that the current prosecutor defamed them. Defendants moved for summary judgment based on qualified and absolute immunity. The district court found some defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on certain claims and denied qualified immunity and absolute immunity on the remaining claims. Defendants challenged the district court’s decision.
Were the defendants entitled to qualified and absolute immunity on the plaintiffs’ claims?
Yes, with respect to the intentional tort claims and the defamation claim. No, with respect to the due process claim.
The court of appeals held that the district court erred by failing to analyze the scope of the former prosecutor's and the Assistant's employment for sovereign immunity purposes under the Iowa Tort Claims Act, Iowa Code ch. 669, apart from the absolute immunity analysis. Those defendants' duties under Iowa Code § 336.2(1), (6), and (11) (1977) included more than the mere prosecution of an action, and if their alleged investigatory actions fell within the scope of their duties, the intentional tort claims against them would have been barred by Iowa Code § 669.14(4). Because the current prosecutor made the allegedly defamatory statements while acting in his official capacity, § 669.14(4) barred the defamation claim. The denial of qualified immunity as to the due process claim arising from the alleged fabrication of evidence was proper since a prosecutor's immunity was absolute only when the prosecutor performed distinctively prosecutorial functions. Immunity did not extend to the actions of a prosecutor who violated a person's substantive due process rights by obtaining, manufacturing, coercing and fabricating evidence before filing formal charges, because this was not "a distinctly prosecutorial function." Accordingly, the district court's judgment denying sovereign immunity to the current prosecutor on the defamation claim was reversed. The denial of sovereign immunity to the former prosecutor and the Assistant was reversed and remanded for further development of the record and analysis. The district court's judgment was otherwise affirmed.