Archive for the ‘Civil Rights – Section 1983’ Category
Class-of-One Equal Protection Claims
It may surprise some of you to know that one can have a successful equal protection claim without being a member of a racial, gender, ethnic or other group.
In Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2000), a zoning case originating in the Seventh Circuit, the Supreme Court held that an equal protection claim can be based on arbitrary and capricious discrimination against an individual. Thereafter, in Engquist v. Oregon Dep’t of Agric., 553 U.S. 591 (2008), the Court excluded public employees from such class-of-one equal protection coverage. Otherwise, however, class-of-one equal protection claims are available.
Unfortunately, the Court in Olech did little to explain what the elements of such a claim are and whether such a plaintiff must allege and prove some sort of impermissible motive in order to state a class-of-one equal protection claim. This has created uncertainty in the circuits, as demonstrated by a recent decision of the Seventh Circuit.
Enter the Seventh Circuit En Banc
In Del Marcelle v. Brown County Corp., 680 F.3d 887 (7th Cir. 2012)(en banc), aff’g dismissal of complaint by equally divided court, the plaintiff sued law enforcement officers alleging that they failed to respond to his complaints that gangs were harassing him and his wife, thus forcing them to sell their home and move to another village “with the gangs in hot pursuit.” Read the rest of this entry »
Certiorari Granted in Madigan v. Levin
The Supreme Court granted certiorari on March 18, 2013, in Levin v. Madigan, 692 F.3d 607 (7th Cir.), cert. granted sub nom. Madigan v. Levin, 132 S. Ct. — (2013), an important section 1983/ADEA preclusion case.
In Levin, the Seventh Circuit held, as a matter of first impression in its circuit, that a terminated Illinois Assistant Attorney General could use section 1983 to sue state law enforcement officials for damages in their individual capacities for an alleged equal protection age discrimination violation. It rejected the defense argument that the existence of a comprehensive regulatory scheme under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. sec. 621 et. seq., demonstrated Congressional intent to limit such claims to the ADEA and thereby to preclude section 1983 equal protection age discrimination claims. Judge Kanne wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Posner and Bauer.
In so ruling, the Seventh Circuit attracted the Supreme Court’s attention because it took a position on this preclusion issue contrary to that of the District of Columbia, First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits, thus creating a circuit split.
Two Supreme Court Precedents
There are only two directly relevant Supreme Court precedents on this preclusion issue.
The first is Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992 (1984), where the Court held that Congress intended the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), 20 U.S.C. sec. 1400 et. seq., to preclude section 1983 equal protection claims to publicly financed special education. Congress thereafter superseded this decision by enacting the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-372.
The second is much more recent. In Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Comm., 555 U.S. 246 (2009), the Court held that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. sec. 1681(a), did not preclude a section 1983 equal protection sex discrimination claim. In reaching this conclusion, the Court focused on the important differences between the scope and elements of Title IX claims and those of section 1983 equal protection sex discrimination claims.
In both cases, the Court was attempting to discern Congressional intent where Congress had not said anything explicit about this preclusion issue. The Supreme Court in Levin will attempt to do the same.
1. If Congress had declared explicitly that the ADEA either did or did not preclude section 1983 equal protection age discrimination claims, that would have been the end of it. The section 1983 equal protection/ADEA issue arose only because Congress was silent on the matter.
2. There are similarities between this preclusion issue and the use of section 1983 to redress certain federal statutory violations–what I call “laws” actions. Still, it should be harder to demonstrate Congressional intent to preclude a section 1983 constitutional claim than to demonstrate that Congress intended that particular federal statutory violations not be actionable for damages under section 1983.
To put this point somewhat differently, the presumption that section 1983 is available should be stronger for constitutional claims than for federal statutory claims in “laws” actions.
3. Levin will be argued and decided in the Court’s 2013 Term.
See generally on “laws” actions and preclusion of section 1983 constitutional claims, chapter 2 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2012)(West), also available on WESTLAW and as an ebook.
In the seventh in my Section 1983 Primer series, published on October 25, 2012, I blogged about the Supreme Court‘s approach to absolute immunity. I specifically referred to the three categories of absolutely immune defendants–legislators, judges and prosecutors–and also discussed the underlying policy considerations as well as the Court’s functional approach.
In the eighth in this series, published on February 20, 2013, I blogged about absolute legislative immunity.
I discuss absolute judicial immunity in this post.
Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 537 (1967): The Seminal Judicial Immunity Decision
The Supreme Court held in Pierson v. Ray that judges are protected by absolute immunity when they act in a judicial capacity, even if they act unconstitutionally. The Court relied on the background of common law immunity in 1871, when section 1983 was enacted. In Pierson itself, a state court judge was ruled absolutely immune from damages liability under section 1983 even though he had convicted the plaintiff under an unconstitutional statute. For immunity purposes, it did not matter even if the judge did so knowingly.
Purposes of Absolute Judicial Immunity
Absolute judicial immunity is intended to protect the judicial process and not the judges themselves. If judges, who are easy targets, had to be concerned that rulings in civil or criminal cases would generate section 1983 claims against them–after all, someone almost always loses–this could have an adverse effect on their independent decision-making. In addition, section 1983 claims against judges would necessarily involve the relitigation of earlier cases. Further, there is ordinarily a remedy available: an appeal.
The Relevance of Subject Matter Jurisdiction
However, for absolute immunity to apply, the judge must not have acted in the complete absence of all subject matter jurisdiction. If, for example, a probate court judge without any subject matter jurisdiction whatever over criminal cases were to convict a person of a crime unconstitutionally, that judge would not be protected by absolute immunity.
On the other hand, if the existence of subject matter jurisdiction is merely debatable, absolute immunity would still apply, as made clear by the Court in Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978). Read the rest of this entry »
In the seventh of my Section 1983 Primer series, published on October 25, 2012, I blogged about the Supreme Court‘s approach to absolute immunity under section 1983. I specifically referred to the three categories of absolutely immune defendants–legislators, judges and prosecutors–and also discussed the underlying policy considerations and the Court’s functional approach. In this post I discuss legislative immunity.
Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367 (1951): The Seminal Decision
Tenney dealt with the potential liability of members of a California legislative sub-committee investigating Communism subversion. The plaintiff, an admitted Communist, sued them personally for damages under section 1983, alleging that they perverted the investigative process and violated his First Amendment rights. Ruling for the defendants in an opinion by Justice Frankfurter (only Justice Douglas dissented), the Court held that they were protected by absolute immunity from damages liability as a matter of section 1983 interpretation.
The Court made several points that continue to be significant to this day. First, even though section 1983 on its face says nothing about absolute immunity for anyone, the statute is to be interpreted against the common law immunity background in 1871, when section 1983 was enacted. According to the Court, if Congress had intended to overturn the well-established immunity of state legislators, it would have said so explicitly. Second, the Court observed that the allegedly unconstitutional conduct took place during a legislative investigation, which was a normal part of the legislative process.
The Impact and Coverage of Legislative Immunity
The point of absolute legislative immunity is to protect the democratic decision-making process from the chilling effect of lawsuits, as well as from liability. Once a legislator successfully asserts absolute immunity (typically by motion to dismiss or for summary judgment), he or she is no longer a defendant in the section 1983 action even if the allegations of the complaint are true. Therefore, it is the plaintiff who bears the costs of the constitutional deprivation.
Absolute immunity extends beyond state legislative conduct to include regional and local legislative conduct as well. Lake County Estates v. Tahoe Regional Planning Authority, 440 U.S. 966 (1979)(regional legislators); Bogan v. Scott-Harris, 523 U.S. 44 (1998)(local legislators).
Recall, however, that the Court takes a functional approach to immunity, so that legislative immunity applies only to legislative acts and not, for example, to administrative acts.
Absolute legislative immunity is powerful medicine. On balance, though, it is justified by the need to promote independent legislative decision-making by defendants. After all, legislators are highly visible targets of litigation: their decisions will inevitably make many people unhappy. Also, there is a political solution available: the ballot.
Next: Absolute Judicial Immunity
I have written an article about the birth of section 1983 in the Supreme Court that I hope to have published this year.
The article is entitled: Section 1983 Is Born: The Supreme Court Stories of Tenney v. Brandhove and Monroe v. Pape.
It is available as a Working Paper on SSRN and can be downloaded here.
The following is an abstract of this Working Paper:
Section 1983, enacted in 1871, famously provides a damages remedy against state and local government officials and local governments for violations of constitutional rights. But it was only in 1951, in the seminal decision of Tenney v. Brandhove, a legislative immunity case involving an admitted Communist, that the Supreme Court for the first time expressly interpreted the language of section 1983. Ten years later, in 1961, the Court handed down another seminal section 1983 decision: Monroe v. Pape involved a section 1983 claim brought by an African-American alleging police misconduct. Both cases pitted two influential Supreme Court justices and FDR appointees, Felix Frankfurter and William Douglas, against one another in majority and dissenting opinions. Justice Frankfurter was an unremitting advocate of federalism, deference to politically accountable bodies, and judicial restraint. In contrast, Justice Douglas was an ardent proponent of individual rights who had relatively little concern for federalism.
I tell of the birth of section 1983 jurisprudence through the stories of these two cases. Their stories are contained in the papers of Justices Frankfurter and Douglas and in their majority and dissenting opinions. They are also contained in the parties’ petitions for certiorari and briefs and in Monroe’s oral argument. Moreover, these stories must be understood against the background of the political and social settings in which Tenney and Monroe arose. The Cold War and anti-Communist sentiment situate Tenney while the Civil Rights movement and the post-Brown era situate Monroe.
These stories are of interest to section 1983 scholars, to historians of civil rights and constitutional law and to general readers. For one thing, Justice Frankfurter played an outsized role in both decisions. For another, these decisions demonstrate that the early and deep tension between individual rights and federalism — a tension that began with the Fourteenth Amendment and continues to this day — was present at the very beginning of the development of the Supreme Court’s section 1983 jurisprudence. The certiorari petitions and briefs in these cases and the oral argument in Monroe also articulate this tension. Finally, the very different political and social contexts in which Tenney and Monroe were decided illuminate the decisions themselves.
The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, provides that prevailing plaintiffs in § 1983 and other civil rights cases (excluding prisoners who are separately covered by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995) are ordinarily entitled to a reasonable attorney’s fee unless special circumstances render such an award unjust. So the threshold question is whether the plaintiff has prevailed.
Under § 1988, it has long been clear that a plaintiff who recovers damages or obtains meaningful injunctive relief is a prevailing plaintiff. See §§ 10:4-10:11 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2012)(CIVLIBLIT on Westlaw). But every so often federal courts need to be reminded of the obvious.
Lefemine v. Wideman, 81 U.S.L.W. 4005 (11-5-2012)(per curiam)
In this case, the Fourth Circuit held (PDF) that “a plaintiff who secured a permanent injunction but no monetary damages was not a ‘prevailing party’ under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, and so could not receive fees.” Reversing (PDF), the Supreme Court declared: “That was error [b]ecause the injunction ordered the defendant officials to change their behavior in a way that directly benefited the plaintiff.”
The plaintiff, an anti-abortion demonstrator who displayed signs with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, sued county law enforcement officers under § 1983 and the First Amendment for nominal damages and declaratory and injunctive relief in connection with past and planned future demonstrations. The district court found that the defendants had previously violated the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. The district court also permanently enjoined the defendants from engaging in content-based discrimination based on the signs with the pictures. But the district court denied nominal damages on the ground that the defendants were protected by qualified immunity. The district court further denied the plaintiff attorney’s fees based on “the totality of the facts,” and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that the injunction did not alter the relationship between the parties, as required for prevailing party status. The plaintiff sought certiorari in the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the Fourth Circuit’s judgment and remanded, all without merits briefs and oral argument. According to the Court’s per curiam opinion, the plaintiff was clearly a prevailing party because he wanted to conduct demonstrations with signs that the defendants had told him he could not carry. He had sued in order to protect himself from the defendants’ threats against him, and he was successful. “[T]hat ruling worked the requisite material alteration in the parties’ relationship. … [A]fter the ruling, the police could not prevent him from demonstrating in that manner.”
Lefemine is an easy case. You have to wonder what the Fourth Circuit was thinking.
NOTE: THE BLOG IS ON BREAK UNTIL THE THIRD WEEK OF JANUARY, 2013, WHEN THE NEW SEMESTER BEGINS. ENJOY THE HOLIDAYS.
Persons Who Are Not “Persons”
The language of section 1983 makes “[e]very person” who deprives another of his or her constitutional rights under color of law potentially liable in damages.
On its face, section 1983 does not provide for any individual immunities. Moreover, the legislative history on this question is almost entirely lacking.
It turns out, nevertheless, that there are individuals who are not “persons” and who are absolutely immune from damages liability when sued in their individual capacities.
Three Categories of Absolutely Immune Individuals
There are three categories of absolutely immune defendants about which I will separately post later: state and local legislators, judges and prosecutors. But for now, I want to make the following introductory comments.
The Supreme Court’s Approach and Policy Considerations
Over the years the Supreme Court has developed the three categories of absolutely immune defendants by asking two questions.
First, what was the common law immunity background in 1871, when section 1983 was enacted? Second, if the 1871 common law provided for absolute immunity, is that consistent with the purposes of section 1983 in general?
The policy considerations specifically underlying absolute individual immunity are several. The core policy, though, is the promotion of independent decision-making without fear of either being sued (the costs of defending) or personal liability (the costs of liability). In other words, absolute immunity provides a wide margin for error for certain government officials whose functions are so very important that they should not be “chilled” at all when they make their legislative, judicial or prosecutorial decisions. Read the rest of this entry »
The Intracorporate Conspiracy Doctrine
What is the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine and what role, if any, does it play in the § 1983 conspiracy setting?
In the words of the Eleventh Circuit in a § 1985(3) case, “under the doctrine, a corporation cannot conspire with its employees, and its employees, when acting within the scope of their employment, cannot conspire among themselves.”McAndrew v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 206 F.3d 1031, 1036 (11th Cir. 2000)(en banc).
(Mis?)Applying the Doctrine in a § 1983 Case: The Eleventh Circuit in Grider v. City of Auburn
Subsequently, in another Eleventh Circuit case, Grider v. City of Auburn, 618 F.3d 1240 (11th Cir. 2010), the plaintiff sued various city officials, including law enforcement officers, under § 1983, alleging that they maliciously conspired to prosecute him falsely for bribery. Even though the evidence showed that one of the officers was involved in the other’s bribery charge against the plaintiff, the court ruled that both officers could not be sued for an alleged § 1983 conspiracy because of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. Read the rest of this entry »
Several years ago the Supreme Court articulated what it termed a plausibility standard for pleading in federal courts. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)(antitrust) and, especially, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009)(Bivens action vs. federal officials). Precisely what this meant in real-world terms was not entirely clear, and federal courts and litigants have since struggled with the plausibility standard and its relation to notice pleading in federal courts.
Last year, in a post dated 5-13-11, I set out several post-Iqbal decisions from three circuits. This year, as I was again preparing the annual update for my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2011; West Group)(CIVLIBLIT on WESTLAW), I came across two additional circuit court decisions applying Iqbal. I want to share them with you in advance of publication this fall of the 2012 Update.
This is the sixth of my section 1983 primers. I previously blogged on section 1983′s history and purposes (post of 10-29-09); on Monroe v. Pape (post of 11-29-09); on constitutional states of mind (post of 2-6-10); on causation in fact and the Mt. Healthy burden-shift rule (post of 4-25-10); and on statutes of limitations in section 1983 cases (post of 10-27-11).
Overview of Preclusion
This post addresses the important practical topic of claim preclusion (res judicata, which concerns claims that were or could have been raised), and issue preclusion (collateral estoppel, which concerns issues that were raised and adjudicated) in section 1983 cases. Preclusion concerns arise in section 1983 federal court litigation when there is a prior final state judicial or administrative proceeding that involved the same parties (or their privies) and implicated (or could have implicated) the same issues.
To what extent may those claims or issues be relitigated in a subsequent section 1983 federal court proceeding? As it turns out, the answer in each case depends, as a matter of federal law, on the forum state’s preclusion law.
1. The Relevance of 28 U.S.C. section 1738
Like statute of limitations issues in section 1983 litigation, preclusion issues involve a mixture of federal and state law. This is because 28 U.S.C. section 1738 requires federal courts to give the same effect to prior state judicial decisions as would the courts of the forum state. Section 1738 is based on the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause, Art. IV, section 1.
2. The Preclusive Effect of Prior State Criminal Proceedings
(a) Suppose that a defendant in a criminal case makes a Fourth Amendment motion to suppress evidence, which the state court denies, and the defendant is acquitted anyway. The defendant then becomes a section 1983 plaintiff seeking damages against the law enforcement defendants for violating his Fourth Amendment rights. What is the preclusive effect, if any, of that state court decision on the plaintiff’s section 1983 Fourth Amendment claim? Read the rest of this entry »