Clem v. Pinal Cnty. (5/10/2021)

May 19, 2021

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two holds that a grant of qualified immunity to an individual government employee can be issue preclusive in a subsequent negligence action.

In April 2015, an inmate at Pinal County Jail died from morphine intoxication.  A year later, his mother sued Pinal County and the Pinal County Sheriff (in his official capacity) in state court, asserting state-law claims for negligence and gross negligence.  A year after that suit was filed, the inmate’s mother filed a second suit against several detention officers, in their individual capacities, who she believed to have been working at the jail in the timeframe in which her son died.  The second suit asserted only federal law claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  The officers removed the suit against them to federal court, while the first suit remained in state court.

The suit against the officers was eventually reduced to a single officer defendant, and the federal district court handling that suit granted summary judgment to that officer.  The district court concluded that the officer had failed to complete some of his duties, but that failure did not rise to the level of deliberate indifference necessary to defeat qualified immunity applicable to § 1983 claims.  Additionally, the district court found there was no evidence that the officer’s conduct caused the inmate’s death.

After the district court dismissed the federal case, the County and the Sheriff moved for summary judgment in the state court case.  The superior court granted that motion, concluding that principles of issue preclusion and res judicata required that the case be dismissed.

On appeal, the Arizona Court of Appeals Division 2 affirmed in part and reversed in part.  The Court began by rejecting the conclusion that res judicata required dismissal of the case.  Res judicata requires: (1) an identity of claims; (2) a final judgment on the merits; and (3) identity or privity between the parties in the first action and the second.  The Court found the third element lacking because, consistent with federal law, a governmental employee named solely in his individual capacity is not in privity with the government.  Similarly, the defense in the federal action (qualified immunity) was personal to the officer and not shared by the government.  As such, the federal court action did not have preclusive effect.

Turning to issue preclusion, the Court concluded issue preclusion applied narrowly to the extent the state-law claims depended on that individual’s conduct.  For a previous action to have issue preclusive effect on another: (1) the issue at stake must have been identical in both proceedings; (2) the issue was actually litigated and decided in the prior action; (3) there was a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue; and (4) the issue was necessary to decide the merits.  The Court found all four elements satisfied on the issue of whether the individual officer’s conduct resulted in the inmate’s death.  In particular, the Court found that the first factor was met even though the federal case focused on a deliberate indifference standard important for qualified immunity, rather than a negligence standard, because there was substantial overlap in the evidence and argument between both theories, the applicable rule of law was largely the same, and the discovery process on the exact issue in question was similar.

However, the Court determined that the superior court had erred by granting summary judgment on the entire case.  The federal case was only preclusive as to the individual officer’s conduct.  The inmate’s mother, however, based her negligence claims on the conduct of several other detention officers who were not involved in the disposition of the federal case.  Thus, the Court determined that the mother’s claims survived to the extent they were based on the conduct of other individuals.

Judge Eckerstrom authored the opinion for the Court, joined by Vice Chief Judge Staring and Judge Espinosa.