Layne Walker of the Provost Umphrey Law Firm. (Courtesy photo)
While a similar state law claim against him has been allowed to go forward, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has dismissed a federal malicious prosecution case filed against a former Beaumont state district judge who allegedly had a process server arrested for showing up at the courthouse to serve a lawsuit on him.
The background to the dispute is as follows according to the Fifth Circuit’s recent decision in Hartman v. Walker: In 2013, process server Stephen Hartman attempted to serve a summons on 252nd District Court Judge Layne Walker while he was presiding in his courtroom. Walker served on the bench from 2003 until his retirement in 2014. He joined Beaumont’s Provost Umphrey in 2015.
Hartman was arrested by Walker’s bailiffs for noisily disrupting a court proceeding. The events inside the courtroom were captured by a pen video recorder Hartman was wearing. Hartman approached the bar and informed the deputies he was there to serve process on the judge. The deputies instructed Hartman to leave the courtroom but he refused multiple times and placed him under arrest.
The criminal charge against Hartman was later dismissed after a police internal affairs investigation determined the bailiffs mishandled evidence related to Hartman’s arrest, including taking away his pen recorder and bringing it to one of their homes overnight.
Hartman later sued Walker and the bailiffs in federal court on a variety of state and federal claims related to malicious prosecution. Walker and the bailiffs filed a motion to dismiss Hartman’s case for failure to state a claim. And in 2015 a federal district court ultimately dismissed the Hartman’s federal law claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over his state law claims.
Hartman appealed the ruling to the Fifth Circuit alleging that the trial court judge failed to apply the well-known standard of review under Rule 12(b)(6) by construing well-pleaded facts in favor of the defendants instead of the plaintiff. In addition to Hartman’s pleadings, the court also considered the video evidence of the dispute, which Hartman attached as an exhibit to his case.
“In that regard, on a motion to dismiss, the court is entitled to consider any exhibits attached to the complaint, including video evidence,” the Fifth Circuit concluded in a Tuesday per curiam decision affirming the trial court’s decision to dismiss Hartman’s claims against Walker and the bailiffs. “In such an instance, the court is not required to favor plaintiff’s allegations over the video evidence.”
John Stephen Morgan, a Beaumont attorney who represents Hartman, did not immediately return a call for comment.
Andrew Johnson, a Houston attorney who represents Walker in the federal appeal, said he was pleased with the Fifth Circuit’s decision.
“The plaintiff failed to state any claim on which relief can be granted. As the Fifth Circuit noted, the plaintiff’s allegations do not trump the hidden video taken by the plaintiff, which negates his claims against Judge Walker.”
Kathleen Kennedy, chief of the civil division for the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office who represents the bailiffs in the case, said she was also pleased with the decision.
“Nothing that happened in the video gave rise to a constitutional claim,” Kennedy said of the defendants’ chief argument in the case. “And if it did, everybody had (governmental) immunity.”
While the Fifth Circuit tossed the federal malicious prosecution claims against Walker, Beaumont’s Ninth Court of Appeals let the state law cases proceed against the former judge in a March 30 decision.
In his state law claims, Hartman alleged that: Walker’s bailiffs improperly seized the pen recording device that he’d used to record the incident; Walker’s court coordinator maliciously sought to have Hartman’s professional license revoked for three months; Walker hired a district attorney pro tem and illegally used an indigent defense fund to prosecute him; and Walker instructed persons who were in the courtroom during the incident to provide perjured affidavits supporting Hartman’s arrest.
The Ninth Court rejected Walker’s attempt to dismiss the suit by claiming he had judicial immunity. The doctrine of absolute judicial immunity encompasses all judicial acts unless the acts fall outside of the judge’s subject matter jurisdiction.
“Although we agree that Walker is entitled to judicial immunity for ordering Hartman’s arrest when a disturbance (regardless of the cause of the disturbance) involving Hartman occurred in Walker’s courtroom while Walker was presiding, we do not agree that Walker’s alleged actions subsequent to Hartman’s arrest are protected by judicial immunity,” wrote Chief Justice Steve McKeithen.
“Hartman’s alleged causes of action for malicious prosecution and civil conspiracy, as pleaded, occurred after Hartman had been removed from Walker’s courtroom,” he wrote.
McKeithen wrote that obtaining alleged perjured witness affidavits and probable cause affidavits that caused Hartman to be maliciously prosecuted, among other things, “are not normal judicial functions.”