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Alaska Scope-of-Employment Certification Reviewable; State Immune from Guards' Excessive Force

The Alaska Supreme Court held that the Attorney General's certification that Defendant prison guards were acting within the scope of their employment is subject to judicial review. The Court also held that the State was immune for a prisoner's claims arising out of an assault or battery and the prisoner could not bring Bivens-type claims.

In October 2006, restrained Alaska prisoner Paul Heisey suffered serious facial injuries and disfigurement when two Anchorage Correctional Complex guards "performed a ‘take down,’' slamming him face first into the floor.

In October 2008, Heisey sued the guards and Alaska in state court, alleging various theories of tort liability. Pursuant to AS 09.50.253(c), the Attorney General certified that the guards were acting within the scope of their employment when they injured Heisey, and the State moved in December 2008, to substitute itself as the Defendant for the guards. It also moved to dismiss, arguing that it was immune from suit under AS 09.50.250(3) for claims arising from an assault or battery. Heisey argued that the State was not immune from his excessive force claims.

While the motion was pending, Heisey moved to amend his complaint to assert Bivens-type of claims for violations of the state constitution.

In September 2009, the superior court held that the State was immune from suit on Heisey's intentional tort and negligent training and supervision claims. The Court also concluded that the Attorney General's scope-of-employment certification was not subject to judicial review. The court dismissed Heisey's non-constitutional claims but allowed him to amend to add Bivens-type claims.

The Alaska Supreme Court first held that an Attorney General scope-of-employment certification is subject to judicial review and remanded to the superior court to resolve the issue.

Applying the methodology employed by federal courts, the Court determined that: "(1) the standard of review for the certification decision should be de novo; (2) the burden of proof lies upon the plaintiff challenging certification to prove that the defendants were not acting within the scope of their employment; (3) the court should apply the factors in AS 09.50.253(h) (1) for the scope-of-employment determination; (4) the outcome should be decided by the court, not a jury; and (5) the determination should be made prior to trial." For cases involving disputed issues of fact, the Court instructed that the court must hold a pre-trial evidentiary hearing and make factual findings. "The court may resolve the issue on summary judgment" if there are no disputed issues of material fact.

The Court noted that it had "not yet addressed whether an 'excessive force' claim is barred by the State's sovereign immunity for common law assault or battery" under AS 09.50.250(3). However, "the factual basis for Heisey's 'excessive force' claims" gave the Court "reason to believe that 'excessive force' includes an assault or battery." Despite the wording of Heisey's claim, the Court held that "this is an assault or battery claim" which is barred by AS 09.50.250(3).

The Court then agreed with the State that Heisey's constitutional claims were also barred since those claims arose out of an assault or battery. Heisey cannot "evade the State's statutorily defined immunity simply by characterizing his claims as constitutional violations."

The Court finally reversed the lower court's holding that Heisey could bring a Bivens-type claim. The court held that the alternative remedy of a federal civil rights action under 42 USC § 1983 barred Heisey's Bivens-type claims. See: Alaska v. Heisey, No. 6655, Supreme Court No. S-13656 (AK 2012).

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Related legal case

Alaska v. Heisey