(CN) - A lawsuit by a sex offender on probation who claims he was unfairly forced to admit his guilt before entering a sex offender treatment program was dismissed too soon, the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday.
The ruling out of San Francisco reverses a previous sua sponte dismissal of a civil rights case by a U.S. District Court judge in Oregon, who dismissed the sex offender plaintiff's case, which had languished without action for years, on the basis of qualified immunity. A sua sponte dismissal means the court dismissed the case on its own without a motion from either side.
The plaintiff in the case, Daniel Chavez, had been serving a prison sentence for two counts of first-degree sexual abuse and private indecency.
After he was released in 2010, he was ordered to enroll in a sex offender treatment program, which first required him to admit his guilt. Chavez maintained he was innocent, worried that it might affect his chances at a retrial and expose him to perjury charges, and took the Fifth Amendment.
Therapist David Robinson, one of the defendants in the case, rejected Chavez from the program and sent him back to prison for a month because he violated the terms of his parole.
Chavez's case was ultimately retried, but he also filed a civil rights complaint against Robinson and his probation officer, Lisa Moore. He also petitioned the state to postpone his treatment program while his criminal appeal was pending.
A federal judge granted Chavez's motion to proceed in forma pauperis, finding that he had little means, but denied his motion to appoint counsel. For two years the case went unheard.
Finally, in March 2013 the court ordered Chavez to show why his suit should not be dismissed for failure to prosecute. Chavez filed another tort claim, but the court considered it an amended complaint and dismissed it for failing to state a claim. The court also dismissed Moore and Robinson as defendants, ruling independently that they had qualified immunity.
Many government officials, as well as government contractors like Robinson, are often granted qualified immunity from lawsuits as long as the actions they took were in the normal scope of their jobs.
However, the a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled that both the dismissal of the defendants and of Chavez's amended complaint were in error.
"He was directed to take action to avoid dismissal and he did," wrote Judge M. Margaret McKeown in the opinion.
Further, she wrote, a court could act independently to dismiss defendants from a case only after they raise the issue in a responsive pleading. Because no such pleading was made in Chavez's case-and it is unclear whether Chavez could prove Robinson and Moore had no qualified immunity from his case-the district court dismissed the case too hastily, McKeown ruled.
"Pro se complaints frequently lack sufficient information for a judge to make a qualified immunity determination without the benefit of a responsive pleading or discovery," McKeown wrote. "We caution that pre-service dismissal on the basis of qualified immunity is appropriate only in limited circumstances."
The panel reversed the district court's sua sponte dismissal of an in forma pauperis civil rights complaint and remanded the action back to federal court.
Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman and District Judge Sharon L. Gleason concurred.
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