Nahmod Law

DeShaney in the Circuits (V): The Third and Tenth Circuits Weigh In

I have blogged previously about how the DeShaney decision has fared in the circuits. The first time was on 8-22-11; the second time was on 6-1-12; the third time was on 5-20-13; and the most recent was on 6-6-13.

Here are two DeShaney-related decisions from the Third and Tenth Circuits, and some comments. I came across these cases when preparing the 2014 Update to my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. West).

Third Circuit: Henry v. City of Erie

The decedents’ estates sued a city’s housing authority and others alleging that they created the danger that led to decedents’ deaths by fire in Section 8 housing through their approval and subsidization of an apartment even though the apartment did not comply with Section 8’s housing standards because it lacked a smoke detector and a fire escape ladder. Henry v. City of Erie, 728 F.3d 275 (3rd Cir. 2013).

Ruling against the estates, the Third Circuit reasoned that they did not plausibly allege that the defendants’ acts were close enough in time and succession to the ultimate harm: there was a lengthy period of time as well as “intervening forces and actions.” Also, the estates did not allege that the defendants caused the fire or increased decedents’ susceptibility to it. Moreover, the defendants were not responsible for installing a smoke detector or fire escape. “[T]here were too many links in the causal chain after defendants acted and before tragedy struck.” The Third Circuit concluded with the observation that it was declining to expand the state-created danger exception.

Comment: Even though the Third Circuit acknowledged the state-created danger exception to DeShaney, it nevertheless ruled on what seem to be proximate cause grounds (with a hint of causation in fact) that the estates did not  state section 1983 substantive due process claims. This was a way of avoiding the need to decide whether an affirmative duty existed in the first place.

Tenth Circuit: Estate of B.I.C. v. Gillen

Grandparents sued a social worker for damages under the substantive due process state danger-creation theory for her deliberate indifference to extensive evidence of abuse that allegedly led to the death of their granddaughter at the hands of the natural father’s girlfriend (later convicted of murdering the granddaughter). The granddaughter was living with the natural father and his girlfriend at the time. The Tenth Circuit found that the plaintiffs satisfied the requisite showing of affirmative conduct and private violence here.

For one thing, the plaintiffs showed that the defendant’s “inaction” was based on her animus; that is, there was a deliberate decision to ignore based on a decade-long animosity to the family. For another, there were affirmative acts such as the defendant’s refusal to return police phone calls, her refusal to accept photos showing injury, her lying about being in the father’s home, her telling the plaintiffs that allegations of abuse were not her issue but rather for law enforcement and her claiming that these allegations were unsubstantiated. Moreover, the defendant’s conduct was conscience-shocking. Finally, the defendant was not entitled to qualified immunity because she violated clearly settled law in fall 2007. Estate of B.I.C. v. Gillen, 702 F.3d 1182 (10th Cir. 2012). Judge Matheson concurred, 702 F.3d, at 1192, arguing that the court should not have addressed the question whether the defendant’s alleged intentional inaction constituted “affirmative conduct.”

Thereafter, the Tenth Circuit granted the defendant’s petition for rehearing in part, denied en banc review, ordered the original opinion to be withdrawn and substituted an amended version that affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded. Estate of B.I.C. v. Gillen, 710 F.3d 1168 (10th Cir. 2013). In this amended opinion, the Tenth Circuit dealt only with the requirement of conscience shocking conduct and found it here, but remanded to the district court to determine whether other elements on a danger-creation claim, including affirmative conduct, were present.

Comment: The Tenth Circuit was obviously uncomfortable with the broad scope of its prior decision on the state-created danger issue. On rehearing, it therefore addressed only the easier state of mind issue, namely conscience shocking, and had little difficulty finding it here, particularly in light of the defendant’s previously displayed animus. However, in remanding, it wanted to get additional evidence on the affirmative conduct requirement for the state-created danger exception to DeShaney so as to be sure the claim involved more than failure to act.

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August 27, 2014 at 11:52 am

Remarks on the Establishment Clause and Town of Greece

I spoke on August 6, 2014, about the Supreme Court‘s Town of Greece town meeting legislative prayer decision at the National Conference of Jewish Lawyers. In my remarks I situated Town of Greece in Establishment Clause jurisprudence in addition to commenting on it.

What follows is the outline of my remarks. I hope you find them interesting.

You might also want to check out my related YouTube videos (search “sheldon nahmod”) as well as earlier posts (search “religion”).

The text of the first part of the First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; [speech, press, etc.]

Two purposes of the Establishment Clause

Purposes of the Establishment Clause: (a) protecting government from religion because religion is ultimately based on faith and what is sometimes called passion, while self-government is supposed to be based on reason and practical judgment; the European and probably worldwide historical experience (and the theory) is that faith and passion distort and perhaps corrupt government (recall the divine right of kings) and are a danger to it; (b) a less-often remarked on purpose of the Establishment Clause is to protect religion from government (this is a major purpose of the Free Exercise Clause as well); if one religion captures government, other religions are in danger; more subtly, as especially in connection with government financial support of religion, religious bodies sometimes find themselves having to comply with government conditions that may be inconsistent with their religious beliefs (behavior modification or bribery).

Two very different approaches to the Establishment Clause

Jefferson’s wall of separation metaphor as set out his letter in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Assn; Madison, the draftsman of the Bill of Rights, agreed—see his Memorial and Remonstrance and Jefferson’s and Madison’s joint support of the Virginia bill mandating religious freedom; this is the Enlightenment model that emphasizes the private-public distinction in connection with religion; alternatively, and more prominently these days, the morality-based accommodation model (supported by George Washington and John Adams); but all agreed with the principle of neutrality which meant at the very least that government may not prefer any particular religion over others. Core principle: government may not create a church or directly fund a church. Overall question: the proper role of religion in the public square.

Three controversial areas in Establishment Clause jurisprudence

Three historically controversial areas in Supreme Court Establishment Clause jurisprudence: prayer (especially school prayer, but including legislative prayer), school funding (aid to students in religious schools, aid directly to religious schools and school vouchers) and government religious displays (creches, menorahs, Ten Commandments and crosses); it is fair to say that in the last two decades especially, the move in the Supreme Court has been to greater governmental accommodation of religion in the areas of school funding and government religious displays; separation has for the most part held firm in connection with school prayer but, in light of Town of Greece, the move to governmental accommodation is clear in other public prayer situations involving adults; these are, doctrinally at least, the results of changes in the prevailing Establishment Clause tests, which I will briefly discuss next. Of course, personnel changes on the Supreme Court are perhaps a more direct cause as, for example, Justice O’Connor’s replacement by Justice Alito.

The Lemon, endorsement and coercion Establishment Clause tests

The heretofore dominant Lemon test: purpose must be secular, the effect must not be to advance or inhibit religion and entanglement; see Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), dealing with aid to religious schools; this is a very government-restrictive test as is obvious particularly in school prayer cases, but also quite restrictive in aid to religious school cases and religious display cases; Lemon has been extensively criticized by various justices in the the so-called conservative majority on the Court and, indeed, was not used by anyone in Town of Greece; other tests have been offered in its place

Justice O’Connor’s endorsement test: a less government-restrictive test initially developed in connection with religious displays, e.g. Lynch v. Donnelly (1985), which asks whether the challenged government conduct would be seen by a reasonable objective observer familiar with history and tradition as an endorsement of religion

Justice Kennedy’s coercion test in Lee v. Weisman (1992), the graduation prayer case in which, for the Court, he emphasized psychological coercion as against the legal coercion of compulsory school attendance: a very permissive government test, particularly outside of the context of school prayer, as demonstrated by Town of Greece.

Town of Greece in the Second Circuit

The Town of Greece, an overwhelmingly Christian town in New York State, over a period of a decade or so, regularly invited Christian clergymen to lead the opening prayers in town board meetings. These clergymen, more often than not, invoked Jesus and/or the Holy Ghost in their prayers and typically, everyone, including members of the public (mostly adult) in attendance on various business matters, was asked to stand, bow his/her head or join in the prayer, which most, but not all, did. At the same time, the town, after protests from non-Christians, including several Jews, invited a few others, including non-Christian clergy, to lead the opening prayer, which was done for a very short time, say a few months, after which the town reverted to its past practice, in part because the town’s places of worship are all Christian and also because it was easier.

Does this pattern violate the Establishment Clause?

The Second Circuit, in Galloway v. Town of Greece, 681 F.3d 20 (2d Cir. 2012), held that it did. It declared (emphasis added):

What we do hold is that a legislative prayer practice that, however well-intentioned, conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion violates the clear command of the Establishment Clause. Where the overwhelming predominance of prayers offered are associated, often in an explicitly sectarian way, with a particular creed, and where the town takes no steps to avoid the identification, but rather conveys the impression that town officials themselves identify with the sectarian prayers and that residents in attendance are expected to participate in them, a reasonable objective observer would perceive such an affiliation.”

Note that the Second Circuit used Justice O’Connor‘s endorsement test in holding that the Establishment Clause was violated. Significantly, the Second Circuit did not use Justice Kennedy’s coercion test.

However, it discussed and distinguished the Supreme Court’s decision in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), the only case in which the validity of legislative prayer had previously been considered by the Supreme Court. Here, the Court ruled that the Nebraska legislature’s practice of opening its sessions with a prayer delivered by a state-employed clergyman did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Court used an historical approach to interpreting the Establishment Clause, emphasizing that the Framers themselves, by their practice in Congress at the beginning of the United States government, did not view legislative prayers led by government-employed clergy as violations of the Establishment Clause. In addition, and importantly, the Court noted in Marsh that the Judeo-Christian content of the prayers involved did not establish religion because the prayers did not proselytize, advance any religion or disparage any religion. It was on this basis that the Second Circuit distinguished Marsh.

Town of Greece in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court, not surprisingly, granted certiorari and gave the answer to the Establishment Clause question that most of us, including me, expected and predicted. The 5-4 decision reversing the Second Circuit was handed down on May 5, 2014.

Justice Kennedy wrote for the Court, and emphasized Marsh and its reliance on tradition. He rejected the argument that Marsh was distinguishable because overtly Christian prayers were not involved there. In his view, this was insignificant and irrelevant to the Court’s reasoning in Marsh. He disavowed dicta to the contrary in later cases about this limiting interpretation of Marsh. Further, not only did the prayers involved here fall within the tradition in Marsh but it was important that the Town maintained a policy of non-discrimination.

As an alternative ground joined only by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, there was no coercion here because adults were voluntarily present at the Town meeting, in contrast to Lee v. Weisman with its graduating middle-school children who were psychologically coerced into attending. Moreover, offense was not enough to constitute the requisite coercion.

Justices Scalia and Thomas did not join the coercion part (they had dissented in Lee), but otherwise agreed with Justice Kennedy’s reasoning about Marsh and tradition. Both of them agreed that there was no coercion here but argued, disagreeing with Justice Kennedy, that only legal coercion mattered. Justice Thomas alone maintained that the Establishment Clause did not apply to the states through incorporation via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice Kagan wrote an impassioned dissent, arguing that Marsh was distinguishable because here, unlike in Marsh, the prayer was explicitly Christian. Moreover, in Marsh, the prayer was primarily for legislators, whereas here, the prayer was not only for local legislators but also involved citizens present to conduct business. She made a perceptive argument when she used a functional approach and maintained that town meetings perform not only legislative functions but also adjudicative and executive functions as well (her hypos) in which citizens participate. Finally, she chastised the majority’s obvious blindness to other religions and their adherents and its insensitivity to what citizenship means.

Observations

1. No Justice relied on the Lemon test, including the dissenters; in the public prayer setting (probably school prayer as well after Lee) it is effectively dead; and this also seems to be the case for its use in aid to education and religious display cases.

2.  Justice O’Connor’s endorsement test is, after Town of Greece, probably inapplicable to public prayer cases as well, although it may retain its currency in the religious display cases.

3. Town of Greece continues the Court’s determined march in the direction of an increasing governmental role in accommodating religion in the public square

4. Consider the fact that all of the justices in the majority are Catholics (and therefore Christians), while three of the four dissenters are Jewish (Justice Sotomayor is Catholic). What does this suggest, if anything, about blindness to minority religions in the Establishment Clause setting? What does it suggest, if anything, about the effect of a justice’s religion on his or her view of the Establishment Clause, at least for this Court?

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August 7, 2014 at 11:49 am

All My Videos: Constitutional Law, Section 1983 and SCOTUS

My videos–some lengthy, some relatively brief–on constitutional law (including the First and Second Amendments), section 1983 and the Supreme Court, are now available in one place on Youtube right here:  https://www.youtube.com/user/ChicagoKentLaw/playlists?sort=dd&shelf_id=12&view=50

Check them out and let me know what you think. Email me: snahmod@kentlaw.edu.

Thanks to Chicago-Kent techies for setting this up and thanks to you for visiting my blog.

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July 29, 2014 at 10:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Recent Post-Iqbal Supervisory Liability Decisions in the Circuits

I blogged on September 7, 2012, and on July 29, 2013, about post-Iqbal pleading decisions in the circuits.

This past year, I was, as usual, preparing the annual update for my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2014; West Group), when I came across three additional recent circuit court decisions applying Iqbal to supervisory liability.

The Second Circuit decision addresses personal involvement, the Ninth Circuit decision deals with causation and the Eleventh Circuit decision discusses deliberate indifference.

Second Circuit

The Second Circuit dealt with a post-Iqbal case involving a pretrial detainee’s pro se individual capacity claim against a warden in connection with allegations of denial of visitation rights, telephone usage, access to a law library and deprivation of temperature control, ventilation and various amenities. The district court dismissed on the ground that the complaint contained no allegations from which the warden’s personal involvement could be determined and further ruled against the plaintiff’s request for leave to amend. Reversing, the Second Circuit held that the plaintiff should at least have been allowed to amend his complaint in order to allege plausibly that the warden had been informed of the alleged denials and deprivations by a letter that the plaintiff had previously sent to him. The Second Circuit observed that in response to the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the plaintiff referred to such a letter informing the warden of the conditions of his confinement. If such a letter had been sent, a court could infer that the warden was in fact aware of the alleged conditions of which the plaintiff complained, thus constituting the requisite personal involvement. Grullon v. City of New Haven, 720 F.3d 133 (2d Cir. 2013)(quoting Hansen v. Black, 885 F.3d 642, 645-46 (9th Cir. 1989).

Ninth Circuit

The Ninth Circuit, in a post-Iqbal supervisory liability case involving allegations of deliberate indifference against a prison medical director and others in connection with the plaintiff prisoner’s medical care, said the following: “[Under § 1983 a] supervisor may be liable only if (1) he or she is personally involved in the constitutional deprivation, or (2) there is a ‘sufficient causal connection between the supervisor’s wrongful conduct and the constitutional violation.’” Here, there was no evidence that the defendant’s policy of changing dosages of Lithium from three to two, without increasing the total amount prescribed, could have caused plaintiff’s Lithium toxicity. Crowley v. Bannister, 764 F.3d 967 (9th Cir. 2013).

Eleventh Circuit

In a post-Iqbal case involving a pretrial detainee’s allegations against various supervisory prison officials that they did not protect her from a corrections officer who sexually assaulted her, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court and held that she did not plausibly allege the requisite deliberate indifference. It was not enough that she repeatedly alleged deliberate indifference and that the defendants knew or should have known of the risk to her. There were only a few properly pleaded facts—that the corrections officer verbally harassed the plaintiff and told her there was nothing she could do, that he sexually assaulted her, that he had previously sexually assaulted another pretrial detainee and that he had previously had sexual relations with a third detainee. These were insufficient to state a plausible claim against the defendants that each was subjectively aware of the risk and knowingly disregarded it. Indeed, and to the contrary, the plaintiff’s allegations suggested that the jail’s policy was to promptly investigate claims of sexual harassment. Franklin v. Curry, 738 F.3d 1246 (11th Cir. 2013).

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July 11, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Lane v. Franks: New Supreme Court Public Employee Free Speech Decision

Lane v. Franks: New Public Employee Free Speech Decision

The Supreme Court, on June 19, 2014, handed down an important public employee free speech decision in Lane v. Franks (PDF), No. 13-483. The Court unanimously held, in an opinion by Justice Sotomayor, that a public employee who testifies truthfully at trial, pursuant to a subpoena, is protected by the First Amendment from employer discipline, at least where the testimony is not pursuant to his/her duties as an employee. However, the Court also ruled that the employee’s superior, who fired him, was not liable in damages because of qualified immunity.

Justice Thomas concurred, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito, emphasizing that the Court’s ruling applied only to testimony that was not pursuant to a public employee’s official duties.

Previous Posts on Lane v. Franks

I previously blogged about this case when certiorari was granted, see post of January 20, 2014; when (full disclosure here) I co-authored a Law Professors’ Amicus Brief in Support of Petitioner, see post of March 13, 2014; and when I did a short video on the case, see post of April 25, 2014. Those posts set out the background and facts.

The Opinion: The First Amendment Merits

Justice Sotomayor initially set out the basics of public employee free speech jurisprudence stemming from Pickering v. Bd. of Education and Garcetti v. Ceballos. She observed that where a public employee is disciplined for his or her speech and asserts First Amendment protection, the first question was whether the speech engaged in–here, Lane’s testimony at two federal criminal trials– was pursuant to the employee’s job duties. In this case, it was clear– even undisputed–that Lane’s testimony,  pursuant to subpoena, at trial, was not part of his ordinary job duties. Moreover, it was every citizen’s duty under subpoena to testify truthfully at trial. The Court emphatically rejected the misguided position of the Eleventh Circuit in this case that Lane’s speech was not that of a citizen but that of an employee because he testified about information arising out of his employment.

The second question–whether the speech dealt with a matter of public concern–was also easy to answer: Lane’s testimony dealt with the malfeasance of a state legislator in connection with the misuse of public funds. According to the Court, this was a classic case of whistle-blowing about public corruption. This was surely a matter of public concern. Consequently, the First Amendment was implicated here.

Finally, as to the Pickering balancing test, the Court observed that the various defendants never seriously argued that the balance should tip in favor of allowing Lane to be disciplined. There was no countervailing governmental interest whatever that would justify his firing.

Consequently, the First Amendment protected Lane from discipline for his truthful testimony.

The Opinion: Qualified Immunity

The defendant Franks was sued for damages under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, which provides a damages remedy against state and local government officials who violate a person’s constitutional rights. See generally Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2013). However, qualified immunity is a defense to damages liability where the defendant can show that the relevant constitutional law was not clearly settled at the time of the unconstitutional conduct, thereby not providing fair notice to the defendant that his or her conduct was unconstitutional.

Here, the Court agreed with defendant Franks’ argument that the relevant First Amendment law was not clearly settled in the Eleventh Circuit in January 2009 because, at best, there were Eleventh Circuit opinions going in different directions as to the applicability of the First Amendment to a public employee’s subpoenaed testimony at trial. And Garcetti itself did not address that question.

Comments

1. Lane is a major decision because of its unanimous ruling on the First Amendment issue. It is also significant because it’s the first Supreme Court decision to consider the implications of Garcetti, handed down in 2006. The Court soundly treated Lane’s testimony as citizen speech, even though it arose out of Lane’s employment.

2. The opinion expressly did not address the question whether the First Amendment should protect the truthful testimony of a public employee where that testimony is part of the employee’s job responsibilities. Nevertheless, I would argue that Garcetti should not preclude First Amendment application even here because the obligation of a public employee to testify truthfully arises from his or her status as a citizen, and this should trump the fact that the subpoenaed testimony is part of the employee’s job duties. This is where I would part company with the concurring opinion of Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito.

On the other hand, if the employee testifies falsely or misleadingly in such a situation, employer discipline should not be barred by the First Amendment.

3. Finally, the defendant in this case, Franks, was protected by qualified immunity because the relevant First Amendment law was not clearly settled at the time he terminated Lane, namely, January 2009. The Court therefore rejected Lane’s contention that, regardless of the Eleventh Circuit’s confusion on the matter, Garcetti itself established clearly settled law. However, since the Court unanimously read its opinion in Garcetti in favor of Lane’s position, I wonder why that did not, in 2006, establish clearly settled First Amendment law for the nation regardless of the Eleventh Circuit’s own precedents. One possible answer is that the Court still did not consider this fair notice to Franks because the Garcetti itself did not address the precise issue in Lane. Still that seems like an overly narrow application of the clearly settled law requirement.

Nevertheless, Lane declares that as of June 19, 2014, the relevant First Amendment law regarding the truthful testimony of a public employee on a matter of public concern, which is not part of his or her job duties, is indeed protected from governmental discipline by the First Amendment. All public employers are now on notice of this clearly established law in the future.

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June 19, 2014 at 12:49 pm

A Section 1983 Primer (11): Statutes of Limitation and Continuing Violations

In a much-read post of October 27, 2011,  entitled A Section 1983 Primer (5): Statutes of Limitations, I blogged about statutes of limitations in section 1983 cases. There I briefly discussed the complicated issues of (1) choosing the right state statute of limitations, (2) accrual of section 1983 claims and (3) when section 1983 claims are tolled.

Subsequently, in my post of June 17, 2013, entitled A Section 1983 Primer (10): Statutes of Limitations and Accrual After Heck v. Humphrey, I discussed the special accrual rule of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), that applies where the plaintiff has a prior conviction whose validity might be implicated by a successful section 1983 damages action.

This post addresses accrual and the continuing violation doctrine.

The Continuing Violation Doctrine

Under the continuing violation doctrine, certain plaintiffs can overcome a statute of limitations defense by arguing that the allegedly unconstitutional acts were parts of a continuing violation amounting to a single wrong occurring within the limitations period. See United Air Lines, Inc. v. Evans, 431 U.S. 553 (1977),  Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101 (2002), and Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., 127 S. Ct. 2162 (2007).

The continuing violation doctrine is not magic: it is not sufficient under this doctrine that the effects of a defendant’s constitutional violation have continued during the limitations period. Rather, it is ordinarily necessary that the defendant have acted unconstitutionally during the limitations period.

Judge Posner Explains the Continuing Violation Doctrine

Consider the following helpful discussion of the continuing violation doctrine by the Seventh Circuit‘s Judge Posner in Limestone Dev. v. Village of Lemont, 520 F.3d 797, 801 (7th Cir. 2008)(citations omitted), a RICO case:

“Like too many legal doctrines, the ‘continuing violation’ doctrine is misnamed. Suppose that year after year, for ten years, your employer pays you less than the minimum wage. That is a continuing violation. But it does not entitle you to wait until year 15 (assuming for the sake of illustration that the statute of limitations is five years) and then sue not only for the wages you should have received in year 10 but also for the wages you should have received in years 1 through 9. The statute of limitations begins to run upon injury (or, as is standardly [sic] the case with federal claims, upon discovery of the injury) and is not tolled by subsequent injuries.

“The office of the misnamed doctrine is to allow suit to be delayed until a series of wrongful acts blossoms into an injury on which suit can be brought. It is thus a doctrine not about a continuing, but about a cumulative, violation. A typical case is workplace harassment on grounds of sex. The first instance of a coworker’s offensive words or actions may be too trivial to count as an actionable harassment, but if they continue they may eventually reach that level and then the entire series is actionable. If each harassing act had to be considered in isolation, there would be no claim even when by virtue of the cumulative effect of the acts it was plain that the plaintiff had suffered actionable harassment.”

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June 9, 2014 at 8:12 pm

Wood v. Moss: New Supreme Court First Amendment Qualified Immunity Decision Involving Presidential Security

On May 27, 2014, the Supreme Court handed down Wood v. Moss (PDF), 572 U.S. — (2014)(No. 13-115), dealing with the qualified immunity of Secret Service agents sued by protesters for damages under the First Amendment in connection with protecting the President.

The Protestors’ Claim

Wood dealt with a Bivens First Amendment damages action against Secret Service agents who allegedly engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination when they moved the plaintiff protesters of President Bush farther away from him when he was dining. Specifically, two groups of demonstrators, protesters and supporters, were initially situated across from one another during the President’s motorcade, but the President made a quick decision to have dinner at the outdoor patio of a restaurant. The protesters then moved to an area in front of the restaurant but were soon thereafter moved by the agents about two blocks away and outside of weapons range of the President. However, the supporters remained in their original location near a building that kept them outside of weapons range of the President. When the President left the restaurant, he passed his supporters but the protesters were beyond his hearing and sight.

The Court’s Unanimous Qualified Immunity Decision

Writing for a unanimous Court that reversed the Ninth Circuit and ruled that the agents were protected by qualified immunity, Justice Ginsburg at the outset emphasized the gravity of the specter of Presidential assassination and the need for the agents to make quick decisions. Assuming arguendo that the plaintiffs stated a Bivens First Amendment claim, she then went on to determine that the agents did not violate clearly settled First Amendment law on October 14, 2004, when the event occurred. In other words, “it [should] not have been clear to the agents that the security perimeter they established violated the First Amendment.”

No Clearly Established First Amendment Duty Under the Circumstances

According to Justice Ginsburg, while it was clearly established at a general level that governmental viewpoint discrimination violated the First Amendment, it was not clearly established in a situation involving Presidential security that the agents were under a First Amendment obligation to make sure that groups with opposing viewpoints were at comparable locations at all times. Moreover, this would not have made sense under the circumstances since the protesters’ location in front of the restaurant put the President within weapons range and gave them a “largely unobstructed view” while the supporters were never within weapons range of the President. Furthermore, there was no First Amendment obligation to move the supporters away from the President’s motorcade after he left the restaurant.

Finally, the plaintiffs’ allegations of viewpoint discrimination as the agents’ sole motivation were undermined by a showing that the protesters were a security risk because of their location. Thus, the officers had valid security reasons to move the plaintiffs.

Comments

As noted, Wood was a unanimous decision whose reasoning and result clearly reflected the Court’s overriding concern with avoiding the second-guessing of Secret Service agents when engaged in protecting the President of the United States.

It is also important to note that the protesters of the President and his supporters were treated the same way initially. It was only when the President unexpectedly changed his plans that the agents had to act quickly and, above all else, make sure the President was out of weapons range.

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May 29, 2014 at 10:08 am

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