Nahmod Law

Certiorari Granted in Camreta v. Greene: Appellate Jurisdiction in Section 1983 Qualifed Immunity Cases

The Problem

Suppose a section 1983 plaintiff sues individual police officer defendants and a local government, alleging that they violated his constitutional rights and are liable in damages to him.  The individual defendants move for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, as they are entitled to do under Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), and its progeny.  According to the Supreme Court in Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S. Ct. 808 (2009), modifying the “order of battle” approach of Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001)–see post of 9-17-09— the qualified immunity inquiry may, in the discretion of the district court, include both (1) whether the defendants violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights (that is, whether the plaintiff asserted a constitutional violation) and (2) if they did, whether the defendants nevertheless are not liable because they did not violate clearly settled law as of the time of the challenged conduct.

Suppose now that the district court rules that the individual defendants did violate the plaintiff’s constitutional rights but that they did not violate clearly settled law and are thus entitled to qualified immunity.  May the defendants interlocutorily appeal the district court’s determination that the defendants did in fact violate the plaintiff’s constitutional rights where the plaintiff does not appeal the grant to the defendants of qualified immunity?

Consider that the defendants prevailed at the district court level; that technically speaking the ruling that the individual defendants violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights is really not part of the district court’s judgment; and that the dispute between the plaintiff and the individual defendants may now be moot. The plaintiff would prefer a determination that the Circuit Court of Appeals does not have jurisdiction so that the plaintiff’s case against the local government can go forward without any further delay (recall that local governments are not protected by qualified immunity. Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622 (1980)).

For the same reason, though, the local government defendant has an interest in a decision by the Court of Appeals on the constitutional merits as soon as possible. Moreover, an argument can be made that the district court’s statement of the applicable constitutional law affects not only the defendants but all other police officers similarly situated in the jurisdiction who would perhaps be governed by the district court’s announced constitutional standard unless and until it is overturned by a Court of Appeals.

Camreta v. Greene, No. 09-1454, and Alford v. Greene, No. 09-1478 (Cert Granted 10-12-10)

Parallel appellate jurisdiction issues, but related to the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, are presented by the Camreta and Alford cases, which involve the Fourth Amendment and the temporary seizure and interview in a public school of a child who authorities suspected was being sexually assaulted by her father. Here, the district court ruled that the individual defendants did not violate the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights but even if they did, they were protected by qualified immunity. On plaintiff’s appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed on qualified immunity but also found, contrary to the district court, that the individual defendants violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. Camreta v. Greene, 588 F.3d 1011 (9th Cir. 2009). In so doing, the Ninth Circuit made new Fourth Amendment law.

The individual defendants thereafter petitioned for certiorari on the Fourth Amendment issue, which was granted by the Supreme Court. The plaintiff’s brief to the Court addresses the important Fourth Amendment merits, as do the individual defendants’ brief and a number of amici briefs. But the plaintiff also argues that the Court does not have appellate jurisdiction because (1) the defendants prevailed in the Ninth Circuit; (2) the determination by the Ninth Circuit that the individual defendants violated the Fourth Amendment was not part of its judgment; and (3)  the case between the plaintiff and the individual defendants is moot.

What the Court decides about its appellate jurisdiction in Camreta and Alford will pretty clearly have implications for the appellate jurisdiction of Courts of Appeals in parallel cases.

Written by snahmod

February 16, 2011 at 11:16 am

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