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Larson v. State

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

August 15, 2019

ROBERT E. LARSON; TYLER W. GASSMAN; and, PAUL E. STATLER, Appellants,
v.
STATE OF WASHINGTON, Respondent.

          SIDDOWAY, J.

         Robert Larson, Tyler Gassman, and Paul Statler were wrongly convicted of crimes and spent roughly four years in prison before their convictions were vacated and the charges against them were dismissed. They later established their right to assert a claim under Washington's "Wrongfully Convicted Persons Act" (WCPA), chapter 4.100 RCW, which provides damages to a wrongly convicted individual based on years of incarceration, damage-based attorney fees, and certain costs. The three men also filed a federal lawsuit against Spokane County and two of its law enforcement officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (the Section 1983 action). They reached a $2.25 million settlement against the defendants in that lawsuit at around the same time they established their rights under the WCPA.

         At issue is whether their judgment for money damages under the WCPA remained viable after the three men settled the Section 1983 action. Given the operative provisions of the WCPA and the legislative intent that its remedies and compensation be exclusive, we hold that their judgment for WCPA compensation no longer remained viable. The superior court's order vacating the judgment is affirmed.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 2008, Messrs. Larson, Gassman, and Statler (the plaintiffs) were arrested in connection with a Spokane robbery. At their trial in February 2009, they presented alibi evidence. A jury nonetheless found each guilty of first degree robbery, first degree assault, and drive-by shooting. Each was sentenced to more than 20 years of incarceration. They began serving their sentences in July 2009.

         In 2012, the superior court granted their CrR 7.8 motion for relief from judgment, finding they had received ineffective assistance from trial counsel, who failed to investigate potentially exculpatory evidence. Their convictions were vacated and they were released from prison. Rather than retry them, the State dismissed the charges against them in May and July 2013.

         In May 2013, the Washington Legislature enacted the WCPA. Laws of 2013, ch. 175. It became effective on July 28, 2013, and afforded individuals wrongly convicted before that date a three year period within which to file suit. Id. at § 9 (codified at RCW 4.100.090). It expressly addresses its relationship to other civil remedies that a wrongly convicted person might have. As more fully examined below, it states the intent of the legislature that WCPA remedies and compensation "be exclusive to all other remedies at law and in equity" against the state and its political subdivisions. Id. at § 8 (codified at RCW 4.100.080). It effectuates that intent by requiring that a WCPA claimant (1) waive other remedies against the state and certain state actors related to the claimant's wrongful conviction and imprisonment, including remedies under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (2) execute a legal release before receiving payment of any WCPA compensation, and (3) reimburse the State in whole or in part if the claimant's release is held invalid and the claimant later recovers a tort award.

         In January 2014, the plaintiffs brought this action, asserting claims for compensation under the WCPA. At the conclusion of a 2015 bench trial, the superior court concluded they had not met their burden of proof and entered judgment in favor of the State. The plaintiffs appealed. While the State appeal was pending, the plaintiffs filed suit in federal court against Spokane County and two of its law enforcement officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         In June 2016, this court held that the superior court had applied too high a burden of proof on the plaintiffs in certain respects, and remanded for the court to reconsider the required element of actual innocence. Larson v. State, 194 Wn.App. 722, 725, 375 P.3d 1096 (2016).

         Spokane County responded to this court's revival of the plaintiffs' WCPA claim by moving the federal district court to dismiss the Section 1983 action, citing the WCPA's "exclusive remedy" and waiver language. Reading RCW 4.100.080(1) as a whole, the federal district court construed it as allowing concurrent actions, even though "'[p]laintiffs must execute a legal release of all their other claims, including § 1983 claims, prior to the payment of compensation under the WCPA.'" Clerk's Papers (CP) at 59 (boldface and underscore omitted). Accordingly, the Section 1983 action proceeded, as did the WCPA claim.

         In April 2017, after applying the law as clarified by this court, the superior court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to recover under the WCPA. The WCPA provides that a wrongfully convicted individual is entitled to $50, 000.00 per year of actual incarceration, attorney fees capped at the lesser of 10 percent of the claimant's damages or $75, 000, costs, and any child support payments that went unpaid due to a claimant's incarceration. RCW 4.100.060(5)(a), (c), (e). The superior court determined that the plaintiffs were entitled to $710, 697.70 in WCPA damages, $78, 380.06 in attorney fees and costs, and that Mr. Larson was entitled to $1, 299.97 in unpaid child support payments.

         In mid-June 2017, the plaintiffs moved the court to enter judgment for their WCPA remedies. The State opposed the motion, notifying the superior court that it had learned on June 26 that the plaintiffs had settled their Section 1983 claims for a total of $2.5 million. The State also represented that the settlement had been paid, but admitted relying only on hearsay. It argued that having obtained a federal remedy against Spokane County and its officers, the plaintiffs could not recover compensation under the WCPA.

         The superior court entered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, as requested. Although a transcript of the hearing has not been made a part of the record, the superior court would later explain that in entering the judgment, it had

attempted to emphasize the distinction between obtaining a judgment versus enforcing a judgment. [When the judgment was entered], the plaintiffs hadn't been compensated on their [Section] 1983 claim or there was no evidence that they'd been compensated under their [Section] 1983 claim. Rather, they had just settled the claim. The language consistently used in RCW 4.100 relates to being compensated rather than just making other claims.

         Report of Proceedings (RP) at 31-32. The superior court later explained that at the time it agreed to enter judgment,

I found that the plaintiffs were entitled to a judgment because they had met all the requirements of the statute and there was no evidence that they'd been compensated on another claim. I then predicted everyone would be back when the plaintiffs try to enforce the judgment if they get compensated on their [Section] 1983 claims.

Id. at 32. To ensure the State's ability to return to court if the plaintiffs received the federal settlement and then took steps to collect the Washington judgment as well, the judgment provided that "[p]laintiffs shall notify [the State's attorneys] at least 14 days in advance of seeking payment from the State." CP at 105.

         In August 2017, the plaintiffs sought payment of the state court judgment, moving the superior court to direct the clerk of court to furnish a certified copy of the judgment to the Washington Office of Risk Management. The State opposed their motion and obtained an order to show cause why the court should not vacate the judgment under CR 60(b). This time, the State provided a copy of the Washington Counties Risk Pool check in payment of the settlement amount, which turned out to be $2.25 million.

         Following a hearing on the cross motions, the superior court denied the plaintiffs' motion and granted the State's, vacating the plaintiffs' money judgment.[1] The plaintiffs appeal.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Fairly read, the WCPA conditions compensation on a wrongly convicted person's ability to provide an effective waiver and legal release ...


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