Nahmod Law

Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach and First Amendment Retaliatory Arrest Damages Claims: The Court Again Sidesteps the Probable Cause Issue

Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach

In Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, 138 S. Ct. — (2018), the Supreme Court once again avoided ruling generally on the question whether a section 1983 plaintiff who alleges a retaliatory arrest in violation of the First Amendment must allege and prove the absence of probable cause in addition to impermissible First Amendment motive. Or, to put it another way, whether probable cause to arrest is a defense to a First Amendment retaliatory arrest damages claim. Instead, it ruled narrowly for the plaintiff based on the particular facts of his case.

In Lozman, the plaintiff alleged that a city (through its policymakers) had him arrested in retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights. He claimed that he was arrested at a city council meeting when he got up to speak because he previously had criticized the city’s eminent domain redevelopment efforts and had also sued the city for violating the state’s Sunshine Act. He was never prosecuted. However, the plaintiff conceded that there was probable cause for his arrest for violating a Florida statute prohibiting interruptions or disturbances at certain public assemblies, because he had refused to leave the podium after receiving a lawful order to do so.

Ordinarily, such a plaintiff, in order to make out a section 1983 First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim, would only have to allege and prove that this impermissible retaliatory motive caused him harm, and the defendant would have the burden of disproving the absence of but-for causation in order to escape liability. Mt. Healthy Bd. of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274 (1977). But here the city argued that even if its motive was impermissible under the First Amendment, there was probable cause–an objective Fourth Amendment standard–to arrest the plaintiff anyway, and that this constituted a defense to the plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim.

In Lozman, the Eleventh Circuit had ruled that probable cause was indeed a defense to a section 1983 First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. Specifically, it determined that a section 1983 retaliatory arrest plaintiff must allege and prove not only the retaliatory motive but the absence of probable cause as well. In other words, the absence of probable cause was an element of the section 1983 plaintiff’s retaliatory arrest claim.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Reliance on Hartman v. Moore

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision was based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Hartman v. Moore,  547 U.S. 250 (2006), which held that for section 1983 retaliatory prosecution claims against law enforcement officers (prosecutors themselves are absolutely immune from damages liability for their decision to prosecute), the plaintiff must allege and prove not only the impermissible motive but the absence of probable cause as well. The Court reasoned that there was a presumption of prosecutorial regularity that the section 1983 plaintiff must overcome as an element of his retaliatory prosecution case. Accordingly, as a matter of section 1983 statutory interpretation and policy (but not of constitutional law), the plaintiff should have this twin burden in retaliatory prosecution cases.

The Court in Hartman explained that a retaliatory prosecution case was very different from the usual First Amendment retaliation case that involved a relatively clear causal connection between the defendant’s impermissible motivation and the resulting injury to the plaintiff. It was appropriate in such cases to apply the Mt. Healthy burden-shift rule under which the defendant has the burden of disproving but-for causation in order to prevail.

As discussed in a prior post, the Court previously had a similar First Amendment retaliatory arrest issue before it in Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658 (2012). But it avoided addressing the merits by ruling for the individual defendants on qualified immunity grounds.

In my view, as I have argued previously, the Court’s decision in Hartman should not be applied to First Amendment retaliatory arrest cases. The express reason for the Hartman rule is that First Amendment retaliatory prosecution cases involve a presumption of prosecutorial regularity. But this reason is clearly inapplicable where there is no prosecution and the constitutional challenge is to the arrest itself.

Moreover, First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims involve the impermissible motivation (a subjective inquiry) of law enforcement officers irrespective of probable cause, which is an objective (could have arrested) inquiry. Under this objective inquiry, the existence of probable cause precludes a Fourth Amendment violation based on an arrest even where that arrest is grounded on an offense different from the offense for which probable cause is deemed to be present. This provides a great deal of protection for police officers who allegedly make arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

However, if a police officer arrests a person for racial reasons, and the claimed injury is grounded on those racial reasons, it should not matter for the Equal Protection claim–-even if it would for a Fourth Amendment claim–-that the officer had probable cause to do so, namely, that the officer could have arrested the plaintiff. This reasoning should apply as well to §1983 First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims.

It was always questionable whether the Court in Hartman should have allowed policy considerations to change the usual section 1983 causation rules in First Amendment retaliatory prosecution cases. Regardless, that reasoning should most definitely not be extended to First Amendment retaliatory arrest cases. Such policy considerations as are discussed in Hartman are most appropriately addressed, if they are to be addressed at all, as part of the qualified immunity inquiry, not the elements of the section 1983 retaliatory arrest claim.

The Supreme Court’s Narrow Decision in Lozman

In any event, in Lozman, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, reversed the Eleventh Circuit and ruled that in this particular case the plaintiff did not have to allege and prove the absence of probable cause, and probable cause was not a defense to his First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim.

Emphasizing the narrowness of its decision, the Court pointed out that the plaintiff only challenged the lawfulness of his arrest under the First Amendment; he did not make an equal protection claim. Further, he conceded there was probable cause for his arrest, namely, that he could have been arrested for violating the Florida statute. Thus, the only question was whether the existence of probable cause barred his First Amendment retaliation claim in this case.

The Court went on to observe that the issue in First Amendment retaliatory arrest cases was whether Mt. Healthy or Hartman applied. It addressed what it considered to be the strong policy arguments on both sides of the issue. The Court then determined that resolution of the matter would have to wait for another case: “For Lozman’s claim is far afield from the typical retaliatory arrest claims, and the difficulties that might arise if Mt. Healthy is applied to the same mine run of arrests made by police officers are not present here.” For one thing, the plaintiff did not sue the officer who made the arrest. For another, since he sued the city, he had to allege and prove an official policy or custom, which “separates Lozman’s claim from the typical retaliatory arrest claim.” Moreover, the causation issues here were relatively straightforward because the plaintiff’s allegations of an official policy or custom of retaliation were unrelated to the criminal offense for which the arrest was made but rather to prior, protected speech. In short, the causal connection between the alleged animus and the injury would not be “weakened by [an official’s] legitimate consideration of speech.”(quoting Reichle, 566 U.S. at 668).

This did not mean that the Lozman plaintiff would necessarily win on remand. A jury might find that the city did not have a retaliatory motive. Or, under Mt. Healthy, the city might show that it would have had the plaintiff arrested anyway regardless of any retaliatory motive.

Justice Thomas was the sole dissenter. He maintained that the Court had simply made up a narrow rule to fit this case. Instead, he argued that plaintiffs in First Amendment retaliatory arrest cases have the burden of pleading and proving the absence of probable cause. That is, probable cause “necessarily defeats First Amendment retaliatory-arrest claims.” Accordingly, the plaintiff should lose here.

Comments

The better approach, as indicated above, is to apply Mt. Healthy in all retaliatory arrest cases. Hartman should be limited to retaliatory prosecution cases. Nevertheless, after Lozman the question is still open in the Supreme Court. This means, among other things, the retaliatory arrest individual defendants will continue to have a powerful qualified immunity argument, namely, that the law is not clearly settled even now, per Reichle v. Howards.

Note, however, that the Court may yet resolve this question in its forthcoming 2018 Term. On June 28, 2018, it granted certiorari in Nieves v. Bartlett, 712 Fed.Appx. 613 (9th Cir. 2017)(No.17-1174), to address once again whether probable cause is a defense to a section 1983 First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. In this unreported decision, the Ninth Circuit ruled that probable cause is not a defense to First Amendment retaliatory arrest damages claims.

Written by snahmod

July 19, 2018 at 2:19 pm

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