Nahmod Law

Finally! A State’s Highest Court Creates Clearly Settled Law

Whose Decisions Determine Clearly Settled Federal Constitutional Law?

We all know that in order for a state or local government official to be liable for damages in his or her individual (not official) capacity under section 1983, that official must have violated clearly settled federal constitutional law as of the time of the challenged conduct. Otherwise, that official is protected by qualified immunity and is not liable for damages.

The conventional, oft-repeated approach is that in making the clearly settled law inquiry, we look first for apposite Supreme Court decisions. If there are none, then we look to the particular circuit’s decisions to determine whether clearly settled law existed at the time. If there are no such apposite decisions in the particular circuit, we look to the other circuits to determine whether there is an overwhelming consensus that the relevant law was clearly settled.

It is often said as well that a state’s highest court can establish clearly settled federal constitutional law even where there is otherwise no such clearly settled law. Yet, in all of the decades that I have been working in the section 1983 area, I do not recall ever encountering a situation where this has happened. Until now!

The Second Circuit’s Stoley Decision and the Court of Appeals of New York’s Hall Decision

In Stoley v. Vanbramer, 2019 WL 6765762 (2nd Cir. 2019), the defendant New York State troopers allegedly violated the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights by subjecting him in 2013 to a visual body cavity search incident to his arrest on felony charges without reasonable suspicion that drugs were concealed within his body. Affirming the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to the defendants, the Second Circuit relied on a 2008 Court of Appeals of New York decision, People v. Hall, 10 NY3d 303 (N.Y. 2008), holding that individualized reasonable suspicion that an arrestee (whether for misdemeanor or felony) is concealing weapons or other contraband within his body is required by the Fourth Amendment for a visual body cavity search incident to an arrest. The Second Circuit explained that it saw no problem in requiring that New York law enforcement officers know Fourth Amendment law from decisions of federal courts and the Court of Appeals of New York.

Judge Newman concurred, 2019 WL 676562, *12, arguing that the majority relied not only on the Court of Appeals of New York decision for its finding of clearly settled law but also on the decisions of other circuits, decisions of the New York Appellate Division and decisions of district courts in the Second Circuit. The “combination of these circumstances,” together with Hall, supported the majority’s determination.

Judge Jacobs dissented, 2019 WL 67652, *15, contending that relevant Second Circuit Fourth Amendment law regarding body cavity searches incident to felony (as distinct from misdemeanor) arrests was not clearly settled in 2013.

The lesson for attorneys in section 1983 litigation involving qualified immunity and clearly settled law: however rare it is, don’t ignore your highest state court decisions setting out federal constitutional law.

For additional posts on qualified immunity, search “qualified immunity” on this blog.

For much more on qualified immunity, see Ch 8 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (2019) (West/Westlaw).

I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @NahmodLaw.

 

 

Written by snahmod

May 14, 2020 at 9:50 am

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