Officer entitled to official immunity in false arrest case on private campus

William Marsh Rice University and Rice University Police Department and Officer Henry Cash v. Michael Clayton Thomas 01-14-00908-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.] June 4, 2015).

This is a false arrest case in which the First District Court of Appeals reversed the denial of summary judgments based on official immunity and rendered judgment for the Rice Defendants.

Rice Officer Cash received a radio call that a man on campus may be violating a protective order by attempting to contact his wife.  Cash encountered Thomas on campus, who informed Cash he was there to see his wife.  Cash asked if a protective order was in place and Thomas refused to confirm or deny the existence of such an order. Thomas was detained and his wife confirmed a protective order existed. Thomas was then arrested. However, while being processed officers discovered the order was not a protective order, but a mutual restraining order which did not permit arrest. He was then released. Thomas sued the University, department and Officer Cash for a variety of claims.  The Rice Defendants moved for summary judgment based on official immunity of Cash, which the trial court denied.

The court held in questioning, detaining, and arresting Thomas, Officer Cash was performing a discretionary act under the official immunity standard. When evaluating the evidence presented, the court determined a reasonable officer could have believed probable cause existed to make the arrest. Thomas did not present any evidence to counter.  Cash arrested Thomas in the course of his duties as a peace officer assigned to the campus. Therefore Cash conclusively established he is entitled to official immunity. A slightly trickier analysis occurred for the remaining defendants.  Normally, a municipality or other entity commissioning an officer is entitled to governmental immunity and if an employee is immune, the entity remains immune. However, Rice is a private entity. The court ultimately determined that a private employer is entitled to assert any affirmative defenses its employee has to liability.  Since Cash is immune, Rice is therefore immune. [Comment: this is a determination of immunity from liability, and should not be confused with immunity from suit in a plea to the jurisdiction, which Rice arguably could not have asserted].

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Chief Justice Radack, Justice Brown and Justice Lloyd. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Brown. The attorney listed for Thomas is Larry M. Champion.  The attorneys listed for the Rice Defendants are Joe Roden, Anthony Douglas Drumheller, Russell Rusty Hardin Jr., and Lara Hollingsworth.