An Injured Public Employee Gets Past DeShaney and Collins v. City of Harker Heights
The DeShaney and Collins Obstacles for Injured Public Employees Seeking Section 1983 Damages
A public employee who has been injured and thereby deprived of his or her constitutional rights by the employer’s failure to prevent the injury has two major section 1983 affirmative duty hurdles to overcome.
One is the familiar hurdle presented by DeShaney v. County of Winnebago, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), which held that due process does not impose an affirmative duty on state and local governments to protect individuals from private harm. I have blogged about DeShaney and its application in the circuits numerous times. I also analyze it in sections 3:59-61 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (2016).
But even if the DeShaney hurdle can be overcome by showing a special relationship or danger-creation by government, there is the addition hurdle presented by Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115 (1992), which held that section 1983 provides no due process remedy “for a municipal employee who is fatally injured in the course of his employment because the city customarily failed to train or warn its employees about known hazards in the workplace.” Put another way, there is no affirmative due process duty to provide a safe workplace for a public employee. See section 3:58 of my treatise for analysis of Collins.
These two significant hurdles demonstrate why overcoming them both in the same case is highly unusual.
Pauluk v. Savage, 836 F.3d 1117 (9th Cir. 2016)
In Pauluk v. Savage, a potentially significant case, the Ninth Circuit held that the injured public employee surmounted both hurdles, even though he ultimately lost on qualified immunity grounds. See chapter 8 of my treatise on qualified immunity.
Decedent’s legal representative sued a county health district and two employees, alleging that their deliberately indifferent exposure of decedent to a workplace environment known to be infested with toxic mold caused his death, thereby violating substantive due process. The Ninth Circuit noted that this case was at the intersection of the state-created danger doctrine on the one hand and Collins v. City of Harker Heights on the other.
Ultimately reversing the district court’s denial of summary judgment to the defendant employees, the court first found that a substantive due process claim was stated under the state-created danger doctrine even though the case involved a physical condition in the workplace. Under the state-created danger doctrine the plaintiff properly alleged and introduced evidence of a violation of substantive due process in that the defendants knowingly created, and continued to create, the danger to the decedent. But it still ruled that the substantive due process right asserted was not clearly established between 2003 and 2005, when the decedent worked despite his protests, with the result that the defendant employees were protected by qualified immunity.
In addition, and more to the present point, the Ninth Circuit went on to rule that the state-created danger doctrine was not foreclosed in this case by Collins. The court observed that Collins did not involve a claim under the state-created danger doctrine, as here, but rather the claim of a general due process right to a safe workplace. This distinction was significant and cut in favor of the decedent. However, there was no violation of clearly settled law because, unlike existing circuit precedent, this case involved harm by a physical condition where decedent worked. Thus, the defendant employees were entitled to qualified immunity on this ground as well.
Judge Murguia concurred in part and dissented in part, arguing that the plaintiff did not present a substantive due process claim of affirmative acts with deliberate indifference. 836 F.3d 1117 at 126. Judge Noonan dissented, contending that the defendant employees in fact violated clearly settled substantive due process law in the Ninth Circuit. 836 F.3d 1117 at 1132.
1. The Ninth Circuit’s qualified immunity decision applies only to the defendant employees sued in their individual capacities for damages. But there still remains a possible section 1983 remedy against the county health district that was also sued by the decedent’s legal representative but was not technically a party to the defendant employees’ interlocutory appeal.
2. Even though the Ninth Circuit resolved the case in favor of the defendant employees on qualified immunity grounds, Pauluk still established clearly settled due process law going forward.
3. The result on the due process merits in Pauluk is the consequence of good lawyering and a careful reading of Collins. Plaintiff’s attorneys persuaded the Ninth Circuit that once the danger-creation doctrine was available, Collins did not apply where a very specific affirmative act regarding the workplace allegedly violated due process.
4. DeShaney and Collins kinds of cases often present tragic circumstances. Still, plaintiffs in such cases typically lose. Pauluk stands out.
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