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Moon v. City of El Paso

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 15, 2018

BRANDON LEE MOON, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CITY OF EL PASO; COUNTY OF EL PASO; SALVADOR OLIVAREZ; DETECTIVE JEFFREY DOVE; ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY JOHN DAVIS; EDIE RUBALCABA; GILBERT SANCHEZ, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

          Before JOLLY, ELROD, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.

          DON R. WILLETT, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Brandon Lee Moon languished in prison nearly seventeen years for a crime he did not commit. Fortunately-albeit belatedly-post-conviction DNA testing exonerated him. Upon his release, Moon sued various government and law enforcement personnel over his wrongful conviction and imprisonment. In this appeal we need only decide: (1) whether false imprisonment is a "continuing tort" under Texas law (it is), (2) whether Moon's § 1983 due process claim against the County Defendants is time-barred (it is), and (3) whether the assistant district attorney enjoys prosecutorial immunity (he does).

         The perpetrator of this 1987 sexual assault has never been apprehended. Brandon Moon, however, is undeniably innocent, and he is entitled under Texas law to pursue his false-imprisonment claim.

         We AFFIRM in part, REVERSE in part, and REMAND Moon's pendent state tort claim for false imprisonment to the district court.

         I. Background

         Thirty years ago, Brandon Lee Moon was convicted of aggravated sexual assault. Knowing he was innocent, Moon requested DNA testing, which the trial court ordered. The district attorney's office sent semen and blood samples to Lifecodes, a DNA testing company. Moon's trial counsel also obtained DNA samples from the district clerk's office evidenced by an entry on a "checkout document." Lifecodes's analysis ruled out the possibility that Moon was the source of the DNA. But no airtight legal conclusions could be drawn because Lifecodes had no DNA samples from the victim's family for exclusion purposes.[1]

         Fast forward to Moon's fourth habeas petition (filed pro se) in 1996. Moon argued that Lifecodes's report entitled him to release. Assistant District Attorney John Davis represented the State of Texas. This round of habeas proceedings revealed that the checkout form, which documented that Moon's attorney checked out DNA evidence from the district clerk's office in 1989, was missing. The clerk's office conducted a three-week search-to no avail. Given the checkout document's absence, Davis successfully pressed a chain-of-custody argument. Moon's habeas petition failed.

         The checkout document later turned up. It was in the district clerk's office the whole time and was overlooked during the search. According to Moon, the checkout document was critical. Had it been recovered, Davis would not have asserted a chain-of-custody argument. And as Moon sees it, his habeas petition would have surely succeeded.

         While Moon's fourth habeas petition was pending, Davis requested additional DNA testing. (Unlike the original testing that followed Moon's conviction, this 1996 round was sought by Davis, not by the court.) The results arrived a few months later, after the habeas petition had been denied. Donna Stanley, a Department of Public Safety criminalist, reported that the DNA evidence excluded Moon as the source of the semen. But as with the earlier Lifecodes analysis, the 1996 results could not conclusively establish Moon's innocence absent reference samples from the victim and her family. So the results helped exculpate (cast doubt) but did not exonerate (clear doubt). Stanley sent the analysis to Davis but not to Moon or to the court. Davis, in turn, did not disclose the results to Moon or seek to obtain follow-up DNA samples that would have confirmed Moon's innocence. Moon remained in prison for eight more years-for a rape he did not commit.

         Cue the Innocence Project. In 2004, they acquired the final piece of the scientific puzzle: blood samples from the victim and her family. DNA testing irrefutably proved Moon's innocence and secured his release in December 2004.

         Not quite two years later, in October 2006, Moon brought this suit raising § 1983 and state claims. According to Moon, the City of El Paso and two detectives (City Defendants) falsely imprisoned him; officials in the El Paso County District Clerk's office (County Defendants) violated his due process right of access to the courts by overseeing a shambolic office and failing to keep track of the checkout document; and Assistant District Attorney Davis deprived him of due process by making an unfounded chain-of-custody argument during Moon's 1996 habeas proceeding, and failing to inform Moon of the State's separate exculpatory (though not conclusively exonerating) DNA report.

         For the next decade, the district court oversaw limited discovery. Eventually, it dismissed (or granted summary judgment against) all of Moon's claims. Moon appealed, challenging only the dismissal of (1) his state false-imprisonment claim against the City Defendants; (2) his § 1983 due process claim against the County Defendants; and (3) his § 1983 due process claim against Assistant District Attorney Davis.

         II. Standard of Review

         We review de novo a dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6).[2] In the proceedings below, the parties introduced and used evidence extrinsic to the pleadings, so the district court construed Defendants' motions to dismiss as motions for summary judgment.[3] Our review of a summary-judgment grant is de novo too, applying the same standard as the district court.[4] Summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[5]

         III. Discussion

         A. False imprisonment is a "continuing tort" in Texas, and Moon's claim was timely filed.

         Texas's residual two-year statute of limitations governs Moon's false-imprisonment claim.[6] But when did the clock start running: When Moon was imprisoned in 1988 or when he was released in 2004? The district court chose the former, meaning his 2006 claim was time-barred. We disagree.

         Because limitations is the sole basis for the district court's dismissal of Moon's false-imprisonment claim, we make an Erie prediction whether the Supreme Court of Texas would hold that false imprisonment is a continuing tort.[7] The default accrual rule, as that Court recently reaffirmed, is that "a cause of action generally accrues at the time when facts come into existence which authorize a claimant to seek a judicial remedy," and the "fact that damage may continue to occur for an extended period . . . does not prevent limitations from starting to run."[8] On the other hand, added the Court, "We recognize that the continuing-tort doctrine might provide needed protections to plaintiffs in certain situations."[9]

         As a formal precedential matter, the Supreme Court of Texas is agnostic: "We have neither endorsed nor addressed the continuing-tort doctrine."[10] And our circuit has no binding precedent on whether the doctrine applies in the false-imprisonment context, although one unpublished opinion concluded that a Texas false-imprisonment claim accrued at the time of imprisonment.[11] Yet multiple Texas intermediate courts have weighed in. And they uniformly hold that false imprisonment is a continuing tort that accrues upon the plaintiff's release.[12] The City Defendants cite various cases opposing this proposition.[13] But these cases are distinguishable as they address ...


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