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Washington DOC Not Subject to Absolute Immunity from All Litigation

A Washington state court of appeals held that the Department of Corrections (DOC) is not automatically subject to any immunity from litigation against actions outside their quasi-judicial function. Nonetheless, its officers do not owe a duty to report a charge’s behavior to the sentencing court.

An abusive alcoholic, John McKay, was on community control supervision with a no contact order for threatening to kill his wife. His supervising officer, Mark Deabler, violated his control release when he drunkenly rammed his van into the garage of someone who refused to tell him where his wife could be found. He received 30 days county jail time for the violation and was charged with malicious mischief for the incident. He pled guilty to the offense and received a sentence of three-to-60 months drug rehabilitation.

Released to his parents’ custody, McKay was to continue under the supervision of Deabler until he was able to report to the drug rehab center on November 5, 2012. 10 days before he was to report, McKay chanced upon his wife while out to dinner. Following her home, he later came back with stolen guns and went on a shooting spree that ended with his suicide.

The victims of the shooting spree (James Mock and his son, Linda Ryan and her husband) filed suit against the DOC alleging Deabler was negligent in not advising the court of McKay’s violent nature. Both parties filed for summary judgment. The court granted the defendant’s motion holding that the DOC was immune from litigation. The Plaintiffs appealed.

The court of appeals reviewed the DOC’s claim to absolute immunity and stated that presents says judicial immunity is reserved for judges, prosecutors, witnesses and other participants in judicial hearings. Moreover, quasi-judicial immunity applies to governmental agencies whose functions are to support the judicial process such as setting, modifying or enforcing conditions of community control. Since Deabler neither participated in McKay’s judicial proceedings nor was exercising any quasi-judicial function in his alleged failure to report to the court, he was not under any type of immunity. The DOC argued that Deabler’s decision not to report would fall under the same immunity as if he had chosen to report. The court found this argument dispositive.

Plaintiffs alleged that Deabler had a common law duty to report McKay’s violent tendencies to the sentencing court. The court held the “duty” owed is for an actor to exercise reasonable care over a charge to prevent him from doing harm to others. Since the 2009 statutory changes, violations of supervision are exclusively a DOC administrative process. Deabler exercised his statutory duty of reasonable care when he reported McKay’s violation to the DOC.

The sentencing court requested a pre-sentence investigation report but did not elicit Deabler’s explicit opinion. Nor did they apprise Deabler of McKay’s plea agreement or sentencing date. Having the opportunity to present criminal conduct does not itself impose duty to do so.

The court held that the DOC was not immune from litigation in his instance, but that Deabler did not owe a duty to report therefore summary judgment for the defendants was affirmed.

See: Mock v. Washington  DOC, Wn.2d, 2017.

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Related legal case

Mock v. Washington DOC