A federal appellate court Wednesday rejected a claim by former Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin that she was immune from a lawsuit filed against her by former warden Leon Bradley.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed federal District Judge Madeline Haikala’s ruling denying immunity for Franklin and former deputies Robert Wilson and Blake Robinson. Franklin did not run for a third term and left office in January. Wilson and Robinson left after Ron Puckett became sheriff.
"This ruling is important to the residents of Morgan County because it shows immunity doesn't extend to members of law enforcement who engage in criminal conduct or violate the constitutional rights of others," said Nick Heatherly, a Falkville resident and one of Bradley's lawyers. "They just can't engage in that conduct and hide behind the law to justify it."
In their appeal, Franklin and the other defendants argued that the conduct alleged by Bradley was within the scope of their employment, and that they were therefore absolutely immune from liability.
“This view requires an extraordinarily broad view of absolute immunity that would effectively immunize any conduct when the sheriff flashes his or her badge,” according to the panel of three appellate judges. “The district court correctly rejected this view because Alabama law does not provide such infinite immunity.”
The appellate court assumed the accuracy of the allegations of Bradley’s complaint in determining whether the lawsuit should be dismissed. If facts developed at trial or during pretrial discovery contradict those allegations, Franklin and the former deputies could still pursue their claims of immunity.
“It’s like the old admonition that any testimony may appear true until you’re cross-examined. We still get to have our turn at bat,” said William Gray of Birmingham, Franklin’s lawyer.
Bradley’s allegations, the appellate court said, went far beyond mere claims of sloppy police work.
“Rather, the alleged activities paint a picture of a lengthy conspiracy to defraud the taxpayer, use public funds for personal gain, and punish anyone who threatened to publicize their activities,” according to the decision by judges Charles Wilson, Joel Dubina and Frank Hull.
Bradley’s 56-page complaint alleges he was wrongfully terminated from the Sheriff’s Office in 2016 after 13 years as warden. Franklin has said she fired him for sending confidential Sheriff’s Office documents to Glenda Lockhart for publication in her Morgan County Whistleblower blog.
The complaint also includes several allegations regarding the defendants’ October 2016 search of his home and Lockhart’s business. While Robinson obtained search warrants from then-Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson, Thompson in April 2018 dismissed a misdemeanor charge against Bradley. In his ruling, Thompson wrote that Franklin and her deputies "deliberately misled" the court in obtaining the search warrants and “endeavored to hide or cover up their deception and criminal actions under the color of law.”
Bradley alleges that while he was warden, he saw Franklin misuse inmate labor, mistreat inmates, engage in unlawful hiring practices and misappropriate inmate food money. He said he communicated some of these concerns to Lockhart. Franklin and the deputies responded by recruiting Lockhart’s grandson to install a keylogger on his grandmother’s computer and using information from it to obtain the search warrant, according to the complaint.
“It is hard to think of a better example of knowingly violating a plaintiff’s constitutional rights than the allegation, which we are bound to accept as true, that the defendants facilitated the installation of an unauthorized keylogger on (Glenda Lockhart’s) computer, misled a judge to secure an invalid search warrant, then raided Bradley’s home,” the appellate court ruled.
Gray said the court’s focus on the keylogger allegations were appropriate because they were in the complaint, but are an example of allegations that he believes will be disproved by the evidence when it is introduced.
“We believe we have (information technology) evidence that shows no keylogger was used on Ms. Lockhart’s computer. But until that evidence can be presented to the court, you can’t refute the allegation that there was keylogger information,” Gray said.
Glenda Lockhart has a related lawsuit pending against Franklin and the deputies. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the former sheriff’s immunity claim in that case in June. No depositions or other discovery are taking place in either the Lockhart or Bradley cases because the district court halted the cases for court-ordered mediation. Gray said he is prohibited by the order from discussing any mediation efforts.
Franklin and her former deputies in January filed a lawsuit against Bradley and Glenda Lockhart’s grandson, Daniel Lockhart, in Morgan County Circuit Court. The lawsuit generally alleges the defendants defrauded Thompson, causing him to dismiss the misdemeanor charge filed against Bradley and to write the scathing opinion accusing Franklin and her deputies of criminal conduct. Bradley and Daniel Lockhart have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and a hearing on the motion is scheduled for next Thursday.
Franklin is also in federal court in another case after pleading guilty to a charge of failing to file her personal 2015 tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service. A confidential presentence investigation report jeopardized expectations of a minimal sentence in the case and she has challenged the report. The sentencing hearing has been delayed several times, and now is scheduled for Oct. 17 in the federal district court in Huntsville. Gray declined to comment on the status of the case.
Last month, Franklin settled a lawsuit brought by Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson seeking to recoup inmate food money the former sheriff had allegedly transferred to a personal account. Franklin kept $10,000 of a $55,000 account under the terms of the settlement, with the remainder being “paid to the present sheriff of Morgan County … to be placed in the sheriff's discretionary fund designated for feeding inmates."