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Evans v. Chalmers, Nos. 11-1436, 11-1438, 11-1453, 11-1458, 11-1460,11-1465

Decided:  December 17, 2012

This case is arises from the Duke lacrosse scandal involving false rape charges made against members of the 2005-2006 lacrosse team.  Three groups of plaintiffs brought suit against the City of Durham alleging various causes of action stemming from the alleged mishandling of the rape charges; the City and its officials asserted various immunities from suit and moved to dismiss or for summary judgment as to all claims asserted against them. The district court granted those motions in part and denied in part; the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part, dismissed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.

On March 13-14, 2006, many members of the Duke lacrosse team attended a party at the home of team member David Evans, Daniel Flannery, and Matthew Zach.  One of the hosts hired two exotic dancers who performed from 12 a.m. until 12:04 a.m.  One of the dancers, Mangum, claimed that she had been raped by as many as five men after performing at a bachelor party.  Over the course of the evening and over the next several days, Mangum provided many inconsistent versions of her alleged rape.  Despite a lack of credible evidence, the investigation was continued by City of Durham Officers Gottlieb and Himan.  When District Attorney Michael Nifong took over the case, and directed Gottlieb and Himan in the investigation, Nifong realized the weakness of the case and responded, “You know, we’re f*cked.”  However, the investigation continued.  Nifong pursued and obtained indictments against Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann for first-degree rape, first-degree sex offense, and kidnapping.  Nifong intentionally misstated and misrepresented material facts related to the investigation; Nifong was later disbarred for his conduct during the Mangum investigation and prosecution.  A fuller account of the facts and timeline related to this investigation are available in the full opinion.

One group of plaintiffs asserted a malicious prosecution claim against Officers Gottlieb and Himan; the district court denied the officers’ motions to dismiss because the plaintiffs were arrested pursuant to an indictment obtained by the intentional or reckless creation of false or misleading evidence used before the grand jury that was necessary to a finding of probable cause.  The Fourth Circuit held that an independent act of a prosecutor or grand jury can break the causal chain and the fact that the prosecutor misled the grand jury does not render police officer liable.  Alternatively, the plaintiffs argued that the officers conspired with Nifong to conceal and fabricate evidence, and they unduly pressured Nifong to seek the indictment.  However, the Fourth Circuit rejected this theory on the basis that it is contrary to the purpose of qualified immunity that police officers could be held liable for working with a prosecutor on an investigation.  The court held that “a prosecutor’s independent decision to seek an indictment breaks the causal chain unless the officer has misled or unduly pressured the prosecutor.”  The court reversed the district court’s denial of the officers’ motions to dismiss the malicious prosecution claims against them.

The other two groups of plaintiffs alleged § 1983 claims against the officers based on asserted unlawful seizures of evidence pursuant to a state non-testimonial order (NTO).  The plaintiffs claimed that the NTO flowed from dishonest conduct by the officers in their supporting affidavits.  The district court denied the officers’ motion to dismiss these claims.  The Fourth Circuit reversed the dismissal because even with false statements in their affidavits the plaintiffs could not demonstrate that the statements were material or necessary to the authorization of the search.  Ryan McFayden individually also asserted a § 1983 claim for the allegedly unlawful search and seizure of his apartment and car.  However, his individual claim failed as well because the affidavit, without the false statements, still provided adequate support for the search warrant.

Based on the § 1983 claims, the plaintiffs asserted supervisory liability against City supervisory officials.  The district court denied the City and its officials’ motions to dismiss these claims.  The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court.  The claims require a predicate constitutional violation and because the court held that the plaintiffs failed to state §1983 claims they also failed to state supervisory liability claims.

The plaintiffs also asserted state common-law tort claims against the City.  The City moved for summary judgment on the basis of governmental immunity, and the district court denied the motion for summary judgment.  The plaintiffs argued that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the City had waived its immunity by purchasing liability insurance, but the Fourth Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court’s denial of the motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiffs asserted state common-law tort claims against the police officers.  The district court denied the motion to dismiss a claim for malicious prosecution brought against Officers Himan and Gottlieb, but granted a motion to dismiss brought against another officer named Addison.  The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment regarding Officer Addison and affirmed the court’s judgment regarding Officers Himan and Gottlieb concluding the plaintiffs had stated a claim for malicious prosecution.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of the officers’ motion to dismiss a common-law obstruction of justice claim because there is no precedent recognizing an obstruction of justice claim against a police officer for his actions relating to a criminal proceeding.  Finally, the City asked the Fourth Circuit to exercise pendant appellate jurisdiction over the district court’s denial of the City’s motions to dismiss all three sets of plaintiffs’ state constitutional claims.  However, the Fourth Circuit held that neither rationale required for pendant appellate jurisdiction was present and declined to exercise jurisdiction.

Judge Wilkinson wrote separately to concur and emphasize his concern about the overreach of the plaintiffs’ complaints and the slow pace of the litigation due to the number of causes of action and defendants.  While emphasizing that the plaintiffs were innocent of criminal wrongdoing, Judge Wilkinson expressed concern that, in a civil context, the plaintiffs were pulling individuals into a coercive proceeding when they have no business being there similar to their plight as criminal defendants.

Judge Gregory wrote separately concurring in part and dissenting in part.  Judge Gregory would have dismissed all state common law claims against all individual defendants based on the North Carolina doctrine of official immunity.

Full Opinion

-Jennifer B. Routh