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Pinal County v. Cooper

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

October 20, 2015

PINAL COUNTY, a government entity; FRITZ BEHRING, Petitioners,
v.
THE HONORABLE KATHERINE COOPER, Judge of the SUPERIOR COURT OF THE STATE OF ARIZONA, in and for the County of MARICOPA, Respondent Judge, TIMOTHY GAFFNEY, Real Party in Interest

Page 143

Petition for Special Action from the Superior Court in Maricopa County. No. CV2013-007068. The Honorable Katherine M. Cooper, Judge.

For Petitioners: Jones, Skelton & Hochuli, P.L.C., Phoenix, By Georgia A. Staton, Jonathan P. Barnes, Jr.

For Real Party in Interest: Catanese Law Firm, P.C., Phoenix, By David J. Catanese.

Page 144

Judge Peter B. Swann delivered the opinion of the court, in which Presiding Judge Andrew W. Gould and Judge Samuel A. Thumma joined.

OPINION

SWANN, Judge:

[¶1] The issue in this case is whether evidence that a government official acted with ill will is sufficient to defeat qualified immunity. Because qualified immunity is a complete defense to a tort action absent a showing of objective malice, we hold that evidence of spite or ill will is not sufficient to prevent summary judgment on immunity grounds.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

[¶2] Timothy Gaffney, Director of Communications for the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, brought an action against Fritz Behring and Pinal County based on Behring's actions as Pinal County Manager. Asserting claims for defamation, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and abuse of process, Gaffney alleged that Behring deliberately attempted to injure him by (1) applying an inappropriate tax rate for his use of a government vehicle; (2) initiating groundless investigations related to Gaffney's deletion of government e-mails and his submission of a questionable travel-reimbursement form; and (3) disseminating false information about him and the investigations. Though not alleged in the complaint, the action also came to involve Behring's initiation of an investigation into a grant application on which the Sheriff's Office had used Behring's electronic signature without his authorization.

[¶3] Behring and Pinal County moved for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that Behring was protected from liability by qualified immunity because his conduct was within

Page 145

the scope of his official duties and he did not act with malice.

[¶4] With respect to the vehicle-tax issue, the undisputed facts revealed that Gaffney's wages had been garnished at an inappropriate rate. It was also undisputed that Behring had requested an IRS audit to clarify the correct rate. Further, there was no dispute that the County had received conflicting ...


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