June 22, 2018

Tenth Circuit: Discretionary Function Exemption Applies to All Activities of Prosecutors

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Estate of James D. Redd, M.D. v. United States on Tuesday, February 14, 2017.

The facts of the case stemmed from the case of Estate of James D. Redd, M.D. v. Love, in which the estate of Dr. Redd alleged that Mr. Love, a special agent with the Bureau of Land Management, violated Dr. Redd’s Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights when officers searched the Redds’ home as a part of an investigation that targeted persons in possession and trafficking in Native American artifacts that had been taken illegally from the Four Corners region of the United States. The day after agents searched the Redds’ property and arrested him, Dr. Redd committed suicide.

At the beginning of the trial of the lawsuit against Agent Love, the court dismissed all claims against Agent Love except one alleging excessive force. The court later dismissed the excessive force claim as well. In this appeal, the Tenth Circuit was evaluating one of the early claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) that had been dismissed by the district court in the first case: that the value of a “bird effigy pendant” was, as alleged by the estate, overstated in order to support a felony charge against Dr. Redd.

At the request of the parties to the case, the court decided the case on the briefs without oral argument. The court reviewed the claim de novo that the value of the pendant was inflated, and that prosecutors were aware of the inflation. The court stated, “determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” The court agreed with the district court’s finding that the allegation that a cooperating witness intentionally over-valued the pendant is implausible and not well pleaded. The court then noted that the district court was correct in stating that, “absent the implausible allegation of fraudulent valuation of the pendant, the discretionary function exception applies to all identified activities of the prosecutors barring the Estate’s FTCA claim.”

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of all the Estate’s FTCA claims based on the discretionary-function exemption.

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