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Ellis v. Louisiana Board of Ethics ex rel. State

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

November 1, 2017

ROBERT J. ELLIS, JR.
v.
LOUISIANA BOARD OF ETHICS THROUGH THE STATE OF LOUISIANA, BLAKE MONROSE AS CHAIRMAN OF THE LOUISIANA BOARD OF ETHICS, MICHAEL DUPREE, KATHLEEN ALLEN, SUE MOONEY, AND AARON BROOKS, IN THEIR OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY

         On Appeal from the 19th Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of East Baton Rouge State of Louisiana Trial Court Docket Number 644802, Section 23 The Honorable William A. Morvant, Judge Presiding

          Salvador I. Bivalacqua Scott M. Galante New Orleans, Louisiana Attorneys for Plaintiff/ Appellant, Robert J. Ellis, Jr.

          Jeff Landry Attorney General Andrew Blanchfield Special Assistant Attorney General Baton Rouge, Louisiana Attorneys for Defendants/ Appellees, The State of Louisiana, through the Louisiana Board of Ethics, Blake Monrose as Chairman of the Board of Ethics, Kathleen Allen, Sue Mooney and Aaron Brooks, in their Official and Individual Capacity

          BEFORE: HIGGINBOTHAM, HOLDRIDGE, AND PENZATO, JJ.

          PENZATO, J.

         Plaintiff, Robert J. Ellis, Jr. (Ellis), appeals from a summary judgment in favor of the defendants, the State of Louisiana, through the Louisiana Board of Ethics, Blake Monrose as Chairman of the Board of Ethics, Kathleen Allen, Sue Mooney, and Aaron Brooks (Defendants), in their official and individual capacity, dismissing his claims against Defendants with prejudice. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The factual and procedural history leading up to this case is more fully set forth in this court's earlier opinion, Ellis v. Louisiana Bd. of Ethics, 2014-0112 (La.App. 1 Cir. 12/30/14), 168 So.3d 714, writ denied, 2015-0208 (La. 4/17/15), 168 So.3d 400. In sum, on September 15, 2011, the Louisiana Board of Ethics (the Board) voted to conduct a confidential investigation of Ellis for various potential violations of the Code of Governmental Ethics (Code of Ethics). On August 16, 2014, at its regularly scheduled meeting, the Board voted to file charges against Ellis for violating provisions of the Code of Ethics. Id. at 718. Ellis filed a dilatory exception raising the objection of prematurity, based on his contention that the charges should be dismissed because the Board did not complete its investigation prior to filing charges against him, which constituted a violation of La. R.S. 42:1141C. Id. at 718-19. The Louisiana Ethics Adjudicatory Board (EAB) overruled Ellis' exception, and Ellis sought supervisory writs from this court. On December 30, 2014, this court granted Ellis' writ application and reversed the ruling of the EAB overruling Ellis' exception of prematurity, finding that the Board was unable to show a prima facie case of the alleged violations prior to filing formal charges, and therefore the formal charges were premature. Id. at 726. The court dismissed the charges against Ellis.

         As a result of the dismissal of the charges, on December 30, 2015, Ellis filed the instant suit against the Board, Monrose as Chairman of the Board, and Michael Dupree[1], Allen, Mooney, and Brooks, in their official capacity as attorneys and legal counsel for the Board, and in their individual capacity. In his petition, Ellis alleged that the Board filed charges without supporting evidence in order to defeat prescription, and that the State's attorneys recklessly misrepresented to the Board, the EAB and the First Circuit Court of Appeal that the investigation had been completed and that they had sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case. Ellis alleged constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as a claim for malicious prosecution.

         Defendants answered the suit on March 28, 2016, denying liability and asserting that they were entitled to immunity for discretionary acts performed in the course and scope of their lawful powers and duties as employees of the State of Louisiana.[2] Thereafter, Defendants filed an amended answer reiterating their discretionary immunity pursuant to statute and asserting that they were entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity and absolute quasi-prosecutorial immunity.

         On June 22, 2016, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that in determining whether to bring formal charges for ethics violations against Ellis, Defendants were acting in a quasi-judicial and/or quasi-prosecutorial function, and were therefore entitled to absolute immunity. Defendants further urged in the alternative that they were entitled to qualified immunity. Finally, Defendants asserted that they were entitled to qualified immunity for Ellis' 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims in their personal capacity. In support of their motion for summary judgment, Defendants attached the affidavit of Deborah S. Grier, the Executive Secretary and custodian of records for the Board, who testified that she had personal knowledge of the Ellis matter. Ms. Grier attested that on August 1, 2011, the Board received information concerning potential violations of the Code of Ethics by Ellis, and that in its September 15, 2011 executive meeting, the Board referred Ellis to investigation. She further attested that an investigator employed by the Ethics Administration Program was charged with gathering information and issued an investigative report. According to Ms. Grier, the Board reviewed this report at its August 16, 2012 meeting, and voted to issue charges against Ellis. She stated that at all pertinent times, Monrose, Allen, Mooney, and Brooks acted within their official capacities and within the lawful duties set forth in La. R.S. 42:1141. Finally, Ms. Grier stated that at all pertinent times, the Board believed that it had competent evidence to issue formal charges against Ellis.

         Ellis filed an opposition to the motion for summary judgment, maintaining that as this court and the Louisiana Supreme Court had previously ruled that the Board, its chairman, and its attorneys did not complete their investigation to establish a prima facie case before filing charges against Ellis, the doctrines of law of the case and res judicata served to defeat the motion for summary judgment as there was clearly no immunity, qualified or otherwise, afforded the Board, its chairman, or its attorneys for a proceeding in direct violation of statutory mandates. Ellis also argued that summary judgment was premature. Following a hearing on October 31, 2016, the trial court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment and all of Ellis' claims were dismissed by judgment dated December-2, 2016. It is from this judgment that Ellis appeals.

         ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

Ellis asserts the following assignments of error:
(1) The trial court erred in finding that Defendants' actions were quasi-judicial and entitled to ...

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