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Blake v. Lambert

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 5, 2019

CARLA BLAKE, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
DON LAMBERT, in his individual capacity, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, GRAVES, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.

          DON R.WILLETT, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         Don Lambert, a Mississippi school attendance officer, swore an arrest warrant affidavit against Carla Blake for failing to ensure a child attended school. Blake contends that Lambert violated her Fourth Amendment rights because the affidavit lacked probable cause under Malley v. Briggs[1] and was untruthful under Franks v. Delaware.[2] Lambert moved to dismiss or for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which the district court denied.

         We AFFIRM as to the Malley claim because the affidavit lacked any facts to establish probable cause. But we REVERSE as to the Franks claim because it is incompatible with a Malley theory.

         I. Background

         A. Factual

         Lambert is a school attendance officer at the Mississippi Department of Education.[3] Under the state's Compulsory School Attendance Law, his duties include investigating student absences; giving notice of absences to parents, guardians, or custodians; and eventually initiating legal process with a court of competent jurisdiction.[4] S.W. was a six-year-old child enrolled in Prentiss County, Mississippi public schools. Blake is S.W.'s aunt. Blake was the "contact" for S.W. according to school records, which normally meant that S.W. lived with her.[5] The school records are generally reliable, particularly compared with parents' or guardians' informal statements. Only the school district and the responsible adults may update the school records, not the school attendance officer.

         In September 2013 the school reported to Lambert that S.W. had five unexcused absences since school began a month earlier. Lambert sent Blake a form letter informing her of the absences. The letter said it was Blake's responsibility to see that S.W. was attending school, cited the Compulsory School Attendance Law, and listed potential penalties. S.W. continued to accumulate unexcused absences. So Lambert called Blake. Blake said she was S.W.'s aunt, and had also been his foster parent, but she did not have custody, care, or control of S.W. during that school year. She said S.W. lived with his mother, Tracey Perry. Lambert apologized for sending Blake the letter. He also said Blake should contact the school to update its records. Later that day Lambert talked to Perry and her husband on the phone, but the record does not show that they directly addressed who had custody of S.W.

         In June 2014, at the end of the school year, S.W. had sixteen total unexcused absences. And school records continued to show that S.W. lived with Blake. Lambert prepared an affidavit stating that Blake had contributed to the delinquency of S.W. by refusing or willfully failing to ensure he enrolled in and attended school. The affidavit did not mention Lambert's conversations with Blake or the Perrys. Lambert submitted the affidavit to the Prentiss County Justice Court, which issued a warrant for Blake's arrest. A sheriff's deputy arrested Blake at her home. Blake was handcuffed, taken to jail, strip searched, and detained for a short time before being released on bond.

         Meanwhile, the Justice Court judge received a call from someone at the Mississippi Department of Human Services suggesting that the warrant affidavit was inaccurate because the child did not live with Blake. The judge called Lambert and asked him to "review[]" the matter. Lambert submitted a request to drop the charge, which stated, "I filed an affidavit on the wrong person by mistake." Lambert also admitted to a witness that he was wrong to have Blake arrested and was aware that S.W.'s mother now had custody. But later Lambert rechecked the school records and saw that Blake was still listed as the contact for S.W. He also confirmed with his supervisor that the school records were the most reliable source of information. He now believes that his initial affidavit was supported by probable cause.

         B. Procedural

         Blake sued Lambert under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating her Fourth Amendment rights. Lambert moved to dismiss the claims, or for summary judgment, based on qualified immunity and failure to state a claim. The district court treated Lambert's motion as one for summary judgment because both parties relied on matters outside the pleadings and were on notice of summary judgment adjudication.

         The district court denied qualified immunity. It held that "a reasonable jury could conclude that Blake's arrest violated the Fourth Amendment because Lambert knowingly or recklessly applied for her arrest warrant without probable cause or because the warrant application lacked any indicia of probable cause." The district court also denied that part of the motion based on failure to state a claim. Lambert appealed the district court's order.

         II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

         Jurisdiction to review denial of qualified immunity at summary judgment is limited. "[W]e can review the materiality of any factual disputes, but not their genuineness."[6] That is, we "have jurisdiction 'to decide whether the district court erred in concluding as a matter of law that officials are not entitled to qualified immunity on a given set of facts.'"[7] So taking Blake's allegations and summary judgment evidence as true, we may decide if Lambert's "course of conduct would be objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law."[8] And "[w]ithin that narrow universe, our review is de novo."[9]

         As to Lambert's failure-to-state-a-claim argument, we do ordinarily "have 'jurisdiction to pass on the sufficiency of [the] pleadings'" when reviewing denial of qualified immunity.[10] But here the district court properly treated Lambert's motion as one for summary judgment. So this part of the decision was based on the summary judgment standard, not the "sufficiency of [the] pleadings."[11] Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(d) required this because "matters outside the pleadings [we]re presented to and not excluded by the court." We lack jurisdiction to review interlocutory denial of summary judgment on the merits of a claim-as opposed to an immunity defense-and so do not address this issue.[12]

         III. Discussion

         We evaluate Lambert's qualified immunity arguments under the familiar two-part standard. "Once invoked, a plaintiff bears the burden of rebutting qualified immunity by showing two things: (1) that the officials violated a statutory or constitutional right and (2) that the right was 'clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.'"[13]

         A. Lambert Does Not Have Qualified Immunity from the Malley Claim at Summary Judgment.

         Blake says that Lambert violated her Fourth Amendment right, recognized in Malley v. Briggs, to be free from arrest based on a "warrant application . . . so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable."[14] "The Malley wrong is not the presentment of false evidence, but the obvious failure of accurately presented evidence to support the probable cause required for the issuance of a warrant."[15] On this claim, Lambert's "determination that the warrant was valid entitles [him] to qualified immunity from suit unless, 'on an objective basis, it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue' under the circumstances."[16]

         We hold that Blake established a Malley violation at the summary judgment stage. Lambert's affidavit simply identifies Blake, recites the charged offense, and cites the corresponding Mississippi statutes.[17] It does not provide any supporting facts from which a magistrate could independently determine probable cause. For example, it does not describe Lambert's experience, the sources of his information and their reliability, his conversations with Blake and the Perrys, Blake's relationship to S.W., or S.W.'s absence record. Lambert's affidavit is indistinguishable from what we called the "textbook example" of a facially invalid affidavit in Spencer v. Staton.[18] The affidavit in Spencer, like Lambert's, stated that the named person committed the offense but did not provide factual support.[19]

         We also hold that this was clearly established when Lambert swore his affidavit. The general Malley rule dates from the 1980s. And our 2007 decision in Spencer shows Lambert's affidavit violated that rule. It has also been clear since the 1980s that the Fourth Amendment applies to school officials.[20]

         Lambert's principal contrary argument is that no court has applied Malley to school attendance officers. He contends this is significant because different Fourth Amendment standards sometimes apply in non-police contexts, like schools or social worker investigations.[21] And Lambert says he has less ...


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