I have blogged previously about how the Supreme Court’s controversial DeShaney decision has fared in the circuits. DeShaney held that as a general matter governments have no affirmative substantive due process duty to protect persons from private harm. The first post was on 8-22-11; the second was on 6-1-12; the third was on 5-20-13; the fourth was on 6-6-13 and the most recent was on August 28, 2014.
Here are four 2014 DeShaney-related decisions from the Fifth and Eighth Circuits and the Supreme Court of New Jersey. I came across these cases when preparing the 2015 Update to my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. West).
Fifth Circuit: Lance v. Lewisville Independent School District
Where a fourth grade special needs student who had been bullied locked himself inside the school nurse’s bathroom and then took his own life, his parents and his estate sued the school district under § 1983 and substantive due process. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the school district. The Fifth Circuit rejected the application of the special relationship theory, the state danger-creation theory and the caused-to-be-subjected theory. No special relationship between the decedent and the school district existed in the case pursuant to the en banc decision of the Fifth Circuit in Doe ex rel Magee, 675 F.3d 849 (5th Cir. 2012)(en banc). Also, there was no genuine issue of material fact in dispute regarding the state-created danger theory even if that theory were to be applied: the school district did not affirmatively place the decedent in danger, there was no evidence that the school district knew that decedent’s suicide was imminent and the plaintiffs did not show that the school district created a dangerous environment for the decedent. Finally, the caused-to-be subject theory has not been adopted by the Fifth Circuit. Lance v. Lewisville Independent School District, 2014 WL 805452 (5th Cir. 2014).
Eighth Circuit: Montgomery v. City of Ames and Gladden v. Richbourg
The plaintiff sued a city, police officers and others alleging a substantive due process violation arising out of the shooting of the plaintiff by a third person who broke into her house and shot her three times. She alleged that the defendants created the danger that the assailant would attack her through their deliberate indifference. Montgomery v. City of Ames, 2014 WL 1387033 (8th Cir. 2014). Ruling for the defendants on this issue, the Eighth Circuit noted that the assailant was subject to a protective order, stemming from his conviction for domestic-abuse assault, which prohibited him from being near the plaintiff and from contacting her. However, it determined that the police officer who spoke with the assailant about the plaintiff’s allegations, but did not arrest him despite plaintiff’s warnings, did not act with the requisite deliberate indifference to her safety. There were conflicting accounts about whether the assailant had in fact violated the protective order, and this meant a reasonable jury could not conclude that the officer acted recklessly or in a conscience shocking manner just because he did not arrest the assailant before an investigation the next day.
In Gladden v. Richbourg, 2014 WL 3608521 (8th Cir. 2014), the decedent died of hypothermia after police officers, who had determined that he was mildly intoxicated, took him from a restaurant in a city to an isolated off-ramp outside the city at the county line even though he had asked the officers to take him to his sister’s house in the next county. The decedent’s due process rights were not violated, according to the Eighth Circuit. There was no special relationship because the harm suffered did not occur in police custody. Also, the officers did not act with the requisite reckless/conscience shocking state of mind under the danger creation theory because, even though it was bitterly cold, decedent was only mildly intoxicated, appeared functional to the officers throughout, and thus appeared able to make his way to a guard shack a short distance from where he was dropped off.
Supreme Court of New Jersey: Gormley v. Wood-El
In Gormley v. Wood-El, 2014 WL 2921824 (S. Ct. N.J. 2014), the plaintiff attorney, assigned to represent an involuntarily committed patient at a psychiatric hospital, was brutally attacked by her client in the hospital’s unsupervised day room, “a place where psychotic patients milled about and where violence frequently erupted.” The Supreme Court of New Jersey, ruling for the attorney in her § 1983 claim against hospital officials and others, held that the plaintiff had a substantive due process right to be free from state created dangers and that this right was clearly established in September 2005, when the attorney was attacked and seriously injured. The plaintiff was a member of a discrete class of victims subject to foreseeable harm in the volatile day room created by the defendants. Also, the defendants exercised total control over the plaintiff and the day room meeting and they knew of the special dangers that the client might pose to the unsuspecting plaintiff. Further, there was sufficient evidence of deliberate indifference constituting conscience shocking conduct. Among other things, expert testimony indicated that the level of violence in this psychiatric hospital was unique. Justice LeVecchia, joined by Justice Patterson, dissented, 2014 WL 2921824, *20, arguing that the plaintiff did not make out a substantive due process claim and that the defendants in any event did not violate clearly established law.
As I and others have frequently noted, DeShaney issues typically arise in tragic circumstances, and these cases are no exception. Plaintiffs attempt to end-run the DeShaney no affirmative duty rule by using either the special relationship theory or the danger-creation theory or both.
However, it remains difficult for plaintiffs to prevail even on these theories, as the Fifth and Eighth Circuit cases demonstrate. Only in Gormley did the danger-creation theory work in combination with the special relationship theory by virtue of the total control exercised by the hospital officials over the plaintiff attorney, as found by the Supreme Court of New Jersey.
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