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A Student Drowns While On A Field Trip: The Separate State of Mind Hurdle in Substantive Due Process Affirmative Duty Cases

I have posted (too?) many times over the years on DeShaney substantive due process affirmative duty cases, emphasizing all the while that the threshold issue in such cases is whether there is an affirmative substantive due process duty to begin with.

Typically, the answer in these tragic cases is “no”–there is generally no constitutional duty to protect citizens from private harm–unless there is a special relationship or the state has created the danger. DeShaney v. Winnebago County, 489 U.S. 189 (1989). See generally on DeShaney and its progeny, NAHMOD, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 secs. 9:59-9:61 (2022-23 ed.)(West/Westlaw).

But even where a section 1983 plaintiff is able to overcome the duty issue by, say, plausibly alleging that the state created the danger, that plaintiff may still lose because of the substantive due process state of mind requirement of at least deliberate indifference. As an example, consider Herrera v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist., 18 F.4th 1156 (9th Cir. 2021).

In Herrera, an autistic high school student drowned while on a field trip. His parents brought a section1983 substantive due process claim against various school defendants, all of whom were granted summary judgment by the district court. Finding that there was a state-created danger but still affirming, the Ninth Circuit pointed out that a school aide who was generally watching the student in the pool saw the student exit the shallow end of the pool and enter the locker room area, but he did not see the student shortly thereafter return to the pool and then drown.

The Ninth Circuit explained: “’[W]e have continued to apply the subjective standard in all state-created danger claims and in non-detainee failure-to-protect claims like the one presented here.” Because there was no genuine issue of fact in dispute that the school aide was subjectively unaware of any immediate danger to the student, the school aide was not deliberately indifferent, as required for a substantive due process failure to protect claim. Also, because other lifeguards were monitoring the area as well, the school aide did not abandon the student or leave him completely without protection. This too showed that the school aide did not act with deliberate indifference.


The Ninth Circuit applied a subjective deliberate indifference standard and not an objective one. It rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the student’s situation was analogous to that of the pretrial detainee in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 576 U.S. 389 (2015), which applied an objective reasonableness standard to the pretrial detainee’s section 1983 substantive due process excessive force claim.

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Written by snahmod

January 12, 2023 at 11:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Substantive Due Process Privacy Violations and Section 1983 Claims

Section 1983 makes actionable violations of “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.” This includes not only violations of incorporated provisions of the Bill of Rights such as the First, Second, Fourth and Eighth Amendments but also the Fourteenth Amendment’s stand-alone provisions, the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.

As a result of Supreme Court contraceptive, abortion and homosexual sodomy decisions–see Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), as modified by Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992); Lawrence v. Texas, 123 S. Ct. 2472 (2003)–a constitutional right of privacy is now recognized under the Due Process Clause. This right essentially protects procreations, marriage, family matters and sexual autonomy.

See generally my earlier post on substantive due process and the right of privacy here:

A good recent example of a section 1983 damages action arising out of a substantive due process violation is Perez v. City of Roseville, 2018 WL 797453, *2 (9th Cir. 2018). This Ninth Circuit case involved a former probationary police officer who was discharged after an internal investigation into her romantic relationship with a fellow police officer She alleged under section 1983 that this violated her due process rights to privacy and intimate association because it was based in part on disapproval of her private, off-duty sexual conduct.

Reversing the district court which had granted summary judgment to the defendants, the Ninth Circuit observed that it had “long held that the constitutional guarantees of privacy and free association prohibit the State from taking adverse employment action on the basis of private sexual conduct unless it demonstrates that such conduct negatively affects on-the-job performance or violates a constitutionally permissible, narrowly tailored regulation.” In this case, a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the plaintiff was terminated at least in part because of her extramarital affair.

The Ninth Circuit went on to rule that the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because the relevant due process law was clearly settled long ago in Thorne v. City of El Segundo, 726 F.3d 459 (9th Cir. 1983). Judge Tashima concurred, 2018 WL 797453, *14, disagreeing with the majority’s reasoning on this issue.


The broader the scope of the right of privacy, the broader the potential scope of section 1983 damages liability. This is true, of course, for other constitutional violations that are actionable under section 1983.

It is also important to note that the contours of the right of privacy are for the most part clearly established for qualified immunity purposes.

I discuss many other section 1983 substantive due process privacy cases in my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (2018)(West) at sec. 3:78.

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Written by snahmod

January 7, 2019 at 12:43 pm

Know Your Constitution (7): What Is Substantive Due Process/Right of Privacy?

This is another in a series of posts written about the Constitution in everyday language, with a minimum of legal jargon. Previous posts introduced the Constitution, rebutted some commonly held myths about the Constitution,  addressed the Equal Protection Clause, considered free speech and hate speech and discussed procedural due process.

The immediately preceding post and this post deal with the meaning of the Due Process Clauses that appear in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. These have virtually identical language.

The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause applies to the federal government (“No person … shall …be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”).

The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause applies to state and local governments (“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”).

Distinguishing Between Procedural Due Process and Substantive Due Process

The immediately preceding post deals with procedural due process which focuses on fair and timely procedures.

It is far less complicated and controversial than substantive due process, the subject of this post, which focuses on government regulation of conduct such as abortion, sexual conduct and certain family matters.

One reason that substantive due process is so controversial is that it is not explicitly based in the text of the Constitution, thereby suggesting to some that the Supreme Court has acted improperly and has simply (or not so simply) made it up.

The History of Substantive Due Process: Economic Regulation/Family

The term “substantive due process” is a bit of an oxymoron since “due process” suggests procedure in contrast to substance. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court, beginning in the late 19th century and ending in the mid-1930’s, used substantive due process to strike down many state regulations dealing with economic matters such as employment relationships, work conditions and other attempts to regulate business interests.

Interestingly, perhaps the first use of substantive due process by the Supreme Court was in the infamous Dred Scott case in antebellum America. Here, the Court held that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it took away the property of slaveholders and thus violated substantive due process.

Even though substantive due process was typically identified with economic regulation, there was an important component that dealt with liberty in family matters. For example, in the 1920’s the Supreme Court ruled (in Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters) that states violated substantive due process when they prohibited parents from arranging to have their children learn the German language and also when they required all children to attend a public school while prohibiting them from attending religious private schools. These decisions thus address the non-economic, family related liberty component of substantive due process.

The Retreat from Substantive Due Process in Economic Matters

The high-water mark of substantive due process in economic regulation matters may have been reached in the early part of the 20th century in the (in)famous Lochner v. New York case. Here the Court struck down a New York statute that regulated the maximum hours that bakers could work as a violation of the liberty of contract of employers and employees to negotiate hours and working conditions in general without government interference.

But starting in the mid-1930’s, the Court retreated dramatically from intervening judicially in such matters (one aspect of what some have called “the switch in time that saved nine” in response to President Roosevelt‘s court-packing plan). Eventually the Court became incredibly deferential to state (and federal) regulation of economic matters, using in most such cases what lawyers call a “conceivable rational basis” test. In other words, so long as an economic regulation could be considered to have a rational basis, it did not violate substantive due process.

Current Substantive Due Process/Privacy Doctrine

Even though meaningful substantive due process review is now effectively dead in economic regulation matters, it has survived and subsequently thrived as applied to liberty in family and sexual matters.

There were hints of what was to come in Skinner v. Oklahoma, a 1942 equal protection decision that struck down sterilization as criminal punishment. Here, Justice Douglas famously said: “Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the [human] race.” But it was only in Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision invalidating a criminal prohibition against the use of contraceptives by married persons, that the Court expressly recognized a constitutional right of marital privacy, though there remained some question of its source in the text.

Thereafter, the Court expanded this right of privacy beyond marriage to include the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy in certain circumstances, largely on family/personal autonomy grounds. Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which modified Roe, are the leading cases so ruling on the basis of substantive due process. However, the Court in 2007 cut back somewhat on the scope of the right in Gonzalez v. Carhart, at least in cases dealing with statutes prohibiting so-called “partial birth abortions.”

Finally, in Lawrence v. Texas, a blockbuster 2003 decision, the Court held, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, that states may not criminalize intimate homosexual conduct. The ground here was expressly personal autonomy: “Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.”

As things now stand, Roe, as modified by Casey and Carhart, is still good law. Lawrence remains good law as well.

The hot issue regarding homosexual conduct that is currently percolating in the circuits is the substantive due process question whether the right to marry someone of your own sex is a fundamental right
 protected by substantive due process.

Written by snahmod

September 29, 2014 at 4:29 pm

The Intriguing Intersection of DeShaney and Monell Liability: The Seventh Circuit’s LaPorta Decision

In First Midwest Bank Guardian of Estate of LaPorta v. City of Chicago, 988 F.3d 978, 990–91 (7th Cir. 2021), cert. denied, 142 S. Ct. 389, 211 L. Ed. 2d 207 (2021), the Seventh Circuit put DeShaney v. County of Winnebago, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), to unusual use in ruling against the guardian of an individual who was shot by his friend, an off-duty police officer not acting under color of law at the time. (Full disclosure: I played a consulting role for the plaintiff’s law firm)

The guardian claimed that the City of Chicago “had inadequate policies in place to prevent the shooting—or more precisely, that the City’s policy failures caused [the officer] to shoot him.” Specifically, he alleged: the failure to have an “early warning system” for officers likely to engage in misconduct; the failure to investigate and discipline officers for their misconduct; and the “perpetuation” of a code of silence that deterred reporting of such officers. All of this rendered the City liable under Monell v. Dept. of Social Services, 439 U.S. 974 (1978).

Reversing the jury’s compensatory damages award of $44.7 million (!) against the city, the Seventh Circuit declared that the guardian lost on its §1983 substantive due process bodily integrity claim under DeShaney because the guardian was asserting that the city had an affirmative duty to protect the individual from harm. The DeShaney exceptions did not apply. First, there was no special relationship since the individual was not in state custody. And second, the “narrow” state created danger doctrine, which required more than a “generalized risk of indefinite duration and degree,” did not apply because there was no evidence that the city affirmatively placed the individual in danger. Further, according to the Seventh Circuit, the guardian never explicitly raised the state created danger exception, and the jury was never instructed on it.

Finally, the Seventh Circuit rejected the guardian’s argument that DeShaney was inapplicable and that, instead, Monell supported liability inasmuch as the jury found that the city’s policy failures “caused” the officer to shoot the individual. This argument “reflect[ed] a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between Monell and DeShaney. [These cases] are not competing frameworks for liability. The two cases concern fundamentally distinct subjects.” Monell dealt with §1983 interpretation and local government liability, while DeShaney dealt with the constitutional issue of substantive due process. The Seventh Circuit thus concluded that the individual’s constitutional rights were not violated because the city had no affirmative due process duty to protect the individual from the officer’s “private violence.”


1. Had the police officer here acted under color of law, the DeShaney issue would have disappeared to the extent that DeShaney only applies to the prevention by government of privately caused harm. The issues then would have been, first, whether the police officer’s conduct constituted a substantive due process violation and second, if so, whether the City’s policies caused that substantive due process deprivation. If either question were to be answered in the negative, then the City would not be liable.

2. I have posted regularly about tragic DeShaney cases in the circuits. (You can search “DeShaney” on this blog for many examples) But LaPorta is unusual in that it sharply distinguished between the constitutional interpretation issue posed and the Monell liability issue, a matter of statutory interpretation. This distinction is, of course, sound so far as it goes.

But LaPorta might have come out the other way had the Seventh Circuit found that the challenged conduct–the alleged policies of the City, which were clearly state action–caused the violation of the individual’s substantive due process rights because those policies created the danger to him. The argument is that the City’s policies effectively placed the gun in the off-duty officer’s hand. This the Seventh Circuit did not do because under its approach any state created danger was not sufficiently particularized. The Seventh Circuit also commented that the plaintiff had never explicitly raised the issue. Thus, DeShaney controlled: there was no substantive due process violation.

3. On DeShaney, substantive due process affirmative duties and cases raising those issues, see Nahmod, Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 §§ 3:59-3:61 (2022-23 ed. West/Westlaw).

Written by snahmod

March 29, 2023 at 2:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Unique High-Speed Police Pursuit Case: The Plaintiff Might Win Against The Officer And City

High-speed police pursuit cases often end in serious bodily harm or death not only to the person pursued but to innocent bystanders as well. In most such cases the Fourth Amendment’s excessive force/reasonableness standard does not apply because there is no intentional seizure. Instead, as the Supreme Court held in the seminal decision in County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (19098), substantive due process applies and the appropriate standard is ordinarily “purpose to do harm,” and not the usual substantive due process standard of deliberate indifference.

This high standard serves at least two purposes: (1) it reflects the fact that these situations involve split-second decision making with no real opportunity to deliberate and (2) it serves a gatekeeper function in keeping such tort-like cases out of the federal. (This is one example of variable constitutional states of mind. Another is the Eighth Amendment)

The Seventh Circuit’s Flores Decision

Now consider Flores v. City of South Bend, 997 F.3d 725 (7th Cir. 2021). “Erica Flores’s life came to an untimely end when Officer Justin Gorny of the South Bend, Indiana, police department careened through residential streets and a red light at speeds up to 98 mph to reach a routine traffic stop he was not invited to aid, crashed into Flores’s car, and killed her.”

The Officer’s Potential Liability Under Substantive Due Process

Here, according to the Seventh Circuit, the decedent’s estate plausibly stated a substantive due process claim against the officer individually and the city for failure to train. The court, citing County of Sacramento, observed that “[i]dentical behavior considered reasonable in an emergency situation might be criminally reckless when state actors have time to appreciate the effects of their actions.” Ruling that deliberate indifference applied here, and not purpose to do harm, since the officer had the opportunity to deliberate, the court then went on to find that the officer’s “reckless conduct, unjustified by any emergency or even an order to assist in a routine traffic stop that five officers had under control, allows the inference that he subjectively knew about the risk he created and consciously disregarded it.” This constituted the requisite criminal recklessness for his liability. “The law does not provide a shield against constitutional violations for state actors who consciously take extreme and obvious risks.”

The City’s Potential Liability for Failure to Train

As to the city’s liability under a failure to train theory–see City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989)–the decedent’s estate also plausibly alleged that the city acted with deliberate indifference because it failed to address the “known recklessness” of its police officers as a group and of the officer here. This was not a “one-free- bite” situation just because the defendant had never killed anyone before. The Seventh Circuit observed: “Notably, failure-to-train liability does not require proof of widespread constitutional violations before that failure becomes actionable; a single violation can suffice where a violation occurs and the plaintiff asserts a recurring, obvious risk.” According to the Seventh Circuit, this principle was not inconsistent with Supreme Court failure to train precedent even though the Court had not yet expressly so held.


Flores demonstrates the importance of determining at the outset in a substantive due process case like this one whether the high-speed pursuit involved the need for quick decision making by police. If it did, then the purpose to do harm standard, virtually impossible to meet in most cases, applies. In this case, though, the officer deliberately insinuated himself into the situation which turned tragic because of his involvement, thereby triggering, according to the Seventh Circuit, the deliberate indifference standard for individual liability, a much easier standard to meet. See, on substantive due process, ch. 3 of Nahmod, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 (2022-23 Ed)(West/Westlaw)

As to the city’s potential liability for failure to train, note that the Seventh Circuit acknowledged that in its view–not yet approved by the Supreme Court, and the subject of disagreement in the circuits–a single violation is enough for such liability where there is a recurring and obvious risk even in the absence of a showing of widespread constitutional violations. See, on failure to train liability, ch. 6 of my Treatise.

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Happy New Year to you and your family.

Written by snahmod

January 2, 2023 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

38th Annual Conference on Section 1983: April 20-21, 2022

I’m very pleased to announce the forthcoming 38th Annual Chicago-Kent Conference on Section 1983 that will be held as a streaming webinar on Wednesday and Thursday, April 20-21, 2022.

This two day conference covers the Basics of Section 1983 Claims (Sheldon Nahmod), Individual Immunities (Erwin Chemerinsky), Municipal Liability (Karen Blum), Substantive Due Process (Rosalie Levinson), Supreme Court Review and Preview (Erwin Chemerinsky), the Religion Clauses, RFRA and RLUIPA (Sheldon Nahmod), Practical Issues in Section 1983 Litigation (John Murphey) Employment Law (Jamie Franklin) and Attorney’s Fees and Ethical Issues (Gerry Birnberg).

The speakers are (as many of you already know) prominent scholars and attorneys with great expertise in their areas and considerable experience in speaking to attorneys and judges throughout the country. I might add that the Annual Conference on Section 1983 is considered by many to be the premier program on section 1983.

The schedule and registration information can be accessed through the following link:

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me personally at Otherwise, Chicago-Kent’s CLE staff may be reached through the above link.

I hope you are able to attend.

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Written by snahmod

February 9, 2022 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Shot Suspect Who Escapes & The Seizure Question: Torres v. Madrid (2021)

Background At the outset, note that intent is a condition precedent for a Fourth Amendment violation. The Supreme Court put it this way:

It is clear . . . that a Fourth Amendment seizure does not occur whenever there is a governmentally caused termination of an individual’s freedom of movement. . ., nor even whenever there is a governmentally caused and governmentally desired termination of an individual’s freedom of movement . . . but only when there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied.

Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593 (1989)(emphasis in original), a Fourth Amendment roadblock case.

Seizures In Fourth Amendment cases involving an officer’s use of force where intent is present, it is crucial to distinguish between two additional Fourth Amendment questions: whether there was a seizure and, if there was, whether the seizure violated the Fourth Amendment. Thus, the seizure question serves an important gatekeeper function.

For example, in California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 111 S. Ct. 1547, 113 L. Ed. 2d 690 (1991), the Court held that where police make a show of authority but the subject does not yield, there is no seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes. In Hodari, police chased a person who, in the course of fleeing from them but before he was physically stopped by a tackle, discarded what turned out to be cocaine. Ruling that this evidence could be introduced in the criminal proceeding, the Court ruled that there was no seizure. The Court observed that a seizure required either the application of physical force or submission to the assertion of authority, neither of which was present here at the time the cocaine was discarded.

The Shot Suspect Who Escapes What of a situation in which there was an application of physical force because the suspect was shot but there was no apparent submission to the assertion of authority? Does this still constitute a seizure? The Supreme Court, resolving a split in the circuits and following the common law, answered this question in the affirmative.

Torres v. Madrid, 141 S. Ct. 989 (2021), involved a section 1983 Fourth Amendment excessive force claim brought by a plaintiff who was fired at by police officers 13 times in an attempt to stop her, a suspected carjacker. Although she was struck twice, she escaped and drove 75 miles to a hospital, but was arrested the following day. The Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, ruled that she was seized when she was shot: this was an intentional application of physical force to her body with the intent to subdue, even though she did not submit and was not subdued at the time. There were important differences at common law between seizures by control and seizures by force, with the common law considering a touching to be a seizure. The majority also reasoned that requiring the taking of control for a seizure would be difficult to apply in cases involving the application of force. It thus rejected the defense argument that a seizure be defined as the acquisition of control: this theory was inconsistent with the history of the Fourth Amendment and precedent.

Justice Gorsuch, dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Thomas, arguing that a seizure requires “taking possession of someone or something.” Justice Barrett did not participate in the decision.


The reasoning in Torres applies equally to intentional shootings, tasings and beatings. These are all seizures, triggering Fourth Amendment analysis, because they all implicate personal security, the core of the Fourth Amendment.

If Torres had come out the other way, not only would the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule not be timely implicated in many such cases, but claims of excessive use of force by police officers against those who escape would be governed by substantive due process under which the applicable standard is “purpose to do harm,” County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998), a much heavier burden than unreasonableness under the Fourth Amendment. See Nahmod, Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 §3:52 (2021-22)(West/Westlaw).

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Written by snahmod

October 25, 2021 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

37th Annual Conference on Section 1983: 4/21-23/2021

Registration is now open!
3-day Webinar Series | April 21 – 23, 2021

Eligible for 12.5 hours of general CLE credit, including 1.25 hours of ethics
  Liability arising out of §1983 claims continues to present challenges for courts across the country, and the Supreme Court has a large impact in this dynamic area of law. Join us for this 10-part webinar series, held over three days, to get up-to-date on the latest cases, trends, and strategies affecting §1983 litigation. You have the opportunity to examine both the law of §1983 as well as the litigation strategies that underlie successful cases. Experts in the field address the most important issues and provide wisdom for you as you tackle this year’s cases, whether you represent plaintiffs or defendants. As always, the conference provides an analytical approach to problems and offers practical advice about how to solve them. 

REGISTRATION NOW OPEN Sign-up today and save $50 on the cost of registration! Pay the early bird rate through April 7. Special discount available for attending this conference for 10 or more years, consecutively.
Register at this link:

PROGRAM HIGHLIGHTS• The Section 1983 Claim: The Basics
• Individual Immunities
• Municipal Liability
• Practical Considerations in §1983 Litigation
• Immigration Law and §1983
• The 4th Amendment: Overview and Update
• Attorney’s Fees & Related Ethical Issues
• The Supreme Court’s Term: Recent and Forthcoming Decisions
• Substantive Due Process: The Constitutional Guaranty that Multitasks New this year!
• Takings after Knick New this year!
All sessions are pre-recorded video content along with real-time speaker interaction available via live chat room throughout each session.  

Kimberly D. Bailey | Associate Professor of Law | Chicago-Kent College of Law
Gerald M. Birnberg | Founding Partner | Williams, Birnberg & Andersen LLP
Karen M. Blum | Professor of Law Emerita | Suffolk University Law School
Victoria Carmona | Assistant Clinical Professor and Supervisory Attorney, Immigration Clinic | Chicago-Kent College of Law
Erwin Chemerinsky | Dean & Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law | University of California, Berkeley School of Law
Rosalie B. Levinson |  Professor of Law Emerita | Valparaiso University School of Law
John B. Murphey | Senior Partner | Odelson Sterk Murphey Frazier McGrath, Ltd.
Sheldon H. Nahmod | University Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus | Chicago-Kent College of Law


Written by snahmod

March 8, 2021 at 5:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

DeShaney’s No-Affirmative Duty Rule, Section 1983 and Danger-Creation: Three Recent Decisions

Almost everyone knows by now that in a still-controversial decision, DeShaney v. County of Winnebago, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), the Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause does not create an affirmative substantive due process duty on the part of government to protect citizens from private harm. The Court in DeShaney suggested two exceptions to this general rule: (1) when the government or its officials or employees themselves created the danger in which the plaintiff found himself or herself, and (2) when the plaintiff is in the government’s custody and is thereby prevented from protecting himself or herself. Many, if not most, DeShaney-type cases involve the danger-creation exception and the section 1983 plaintiffs typically lose.

(I’ve posted about DeShaney over the years on this blog. All you need to do to find these posts is to search “DeShaney.” Also, for much more, see ch. 3 in my treatise, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 (2020)(West).)

What follows are three recent decisions that rejected the state-created danger exception to DeShaney.

A Fourth Circuit Case: Graves v. Lioi

The decedent’s estate filed a section 1983 substantive due process suit against two police officers claiming that they were responsible for the stabbing death of the decedent, the assailant’s pregnant wife, outside a courthouse where she had just obtained a protective order against him. The officers allegedly enabled the assailant to postpone his self-surrender on a misdemeanor arrest warrant, thereby providing him with the opportunity to murder his wife. Affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the officers, the Fourth Circuit determined that the record did not show that they committed affirmative acts that would render them liable under the state created danger doctrine. These acts included the letters and texts of one of the officers to the assailant, the conduct of the second officer relating to the arrest warrant against the assailant and their decisions to allow the assailant to leave a police department district office and self-surrender. There was also little or no evidence of a causal link between the alleged affirmative acts and the decedent’s harm. Further, the defendants were protected by qualified immunity. Graves v. Lioi, 930 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2019).

Judge Gregory dissented, arguing that the majority improperly construed the evidence which, in fact, showed that the defendants engaged in actionable affirmative acts to allow the assailant to evade arrest until a date considered convenient to him, when he was finally able to stab his pregnant wife.

A Seventh Circuit Case: Estate of Her v. Hoeppner

A child’s estate filed a section 1983 suit against a parks director, seven lifeguards and a city after the six-year-old child was found unresponsive on the bottom of a man-made swimming pond operated by the city. She died several days later. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants, rejecting the plaintiff’s state danger-created theories. “No reasonable jury could find that the defendants created a danger just by operating a public swimming pond or that they did anything to increase the danger to [the child[ before she drowned. Nor was their conduct so egregious and culpable that it ‘shocks the conscience,’ a necessary predicate for a court to find that an injury from a state-created danger amounts to a due process violation.” There was no evidence that the swimming pond was “distinctively dangerous.” There was also no evidence that the lifeguards disregarded their training: the child slipped below the surface without being noticed by anyone. At most, this was a negligence claim. Estate of Her v. Hoeppner, 939 F.3d 872 (7th Cir. 2019).

An Arkansas Supreme Court Case: Yang v. City of Little Rock

Where the plaintiff  filed a section 1983 damages action against a city and others in connection with the alleged mishandling of a 911 call requesting rescue services for his deceased son, the Supreme Court of Arkansas affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants. As to the plaintiff’s claim that the city failed to provide competent emergency services, thereby causing his son’s death, the court declared that under DeShaney, the city had no constitutional duty to provide rescue services for the son. And as to the plaintiff’s claim that the city was liable under a state-created-danger exception because its water rescue operations prevented rescue attempts by others, there was no evidence that the city arbitrarily prohibited rescue attempts by anyone: indeed, there were no reasonable alternative avenues of rescue here. In short, there was no evidence that the city affirmatively placed the plaintiff’s son in a position of danger that he would not otherwise have faced. Dayong Yang v. City of Little Rock, 2019 Ark. 169 (2019).


  1. I consider the strongest of these three cases for the state-created danger exception to DeShaney to be the Fourth Circuit’s Graves decision. Even here, though, an alternative ground for the decision in favor of defendants was qualified immunity. So the police officers escaped section 1983 damages liability in any event.

2. Even where section 1983 plaintiffs confronting DeShaney can surmount the affirmative duty issue, they still have to show a highly culpable state of mind, often put somewhat confusingly by the circuits in “conscience shocking” terms. What is really required is at least deliberate indifference which is still not all that easy to show. More than negligence or gross negligence is required.

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Written by snahmod

November 17, 2020 at 11:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Off-Duty Police Officers, “Private” Conduct and State Action

Section 1983 damages liability for constitutional violations depends on the threshold existence of a defendant’s state action within the meaning of the 14th Amendment and on the related statutory requirement of color of law. Fortunately, the general rule about the relationship between state action and color of law may be simply put: where there is state action under the 14th Amendment, there is color of law under section 1983. But this means that the (sometimes difficult) 14th Amendment state action question must be addressed in every section 1983 case.

Categories of State Action Cases

The relatively easy state action cases are those in which a state or local government official or employee has exercised government power, either pursuant to state law or in violation of state law, and deprived a person of his or her 14th Amendment rights. The harder and more troublesome, but more typical, state action cases are those in which a private person or entity is sued for damages under section 1983. The question in such cases is whether the challenged nominally private conduct can be attributed to the state or local government. The applicable tests in such cases are the nexus test, the symbiotic relationship test, the public function test and the so-called “entwinement” test.

(Search “state action” on this blog for related posts. In addition, I discuss these state action tests at length in ch. 2 of my Treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (2019)(West/Westlaw)).


The “Converse” of the Typical State Action Case

But there is another category of state action cases that raise what I call the “converse” of the typical state action question. Such cases address the issue of when a state or local government official, one who is ordinarily a state actor, loses that status because he or she has acted as a private person and is consequently not suable under section 1983.

Here are two cases of interest, one from the Seventh Circuit and the other from the Ninth Circuit, finding that the defendant police officers, sued for damages under section 1983 for alleged constitutional violations, were not state actors, and thus could not be liable under section 1983.

(Many other “converse” state action cases from the circuits are collected in ch. 2 of my Treatise).

The Barnes Case from the Seventh Circuit

Barnes v. City of Centralia, 2019 WL 6318087 (7th Cir. 2019), involved a police officer against whom threatening statements were posted on social media by a suspected gang member. The officer submitted a complaint against the suspected gang member who was then arrested. This was followed by a criminal prosecution and the dismissal of charges. The suspected gang member then sued the police officer and the city under section 1983 for violating her constitutional rights.

According to the Seventh Circuit, the officer’s conduct, which was limited to his submitting a complaint, was that of a private citizen, and not that of an investigating officer. Submitting the complaint was the extent of the officer’s participation. He did not arrest the plaintiff and had no role in that arrest; he did not even know what crimes the plaintiff would be charged with. The officer’s report therefore did not involve any exercise by him of state authority.

The Hyun Ju Park Case from the Ninth Circuit

Hyun Ju Park v. City and County of Honolulu, 2020 WL 1225271 (9th Cir. 2020), dealt with two off-duty police officers who watched as their intoxicated off-duty colleague decided to inspect his gun—which the police department authorized him to carry–at a bar to ensure that it was loaded. They also watched as their colleague attempted recklessly to  load his already loaded gun, which then accidentally discharged, with a single bullet striking the plaintiff bartender and causing serious physical harm.

The Eighth Circuit found no state action on the part of these two defendants (the third intoxicated defendant had settled separately with the plaintiff) who were sued for violating substantive due process. They were not state actors for a number of reasons. Neither one exercised nor purported to exercise official responsibilities. Both were off-duty, dressed in plain clothes, were drinking as private citizens at a bar and never identified themselves as police officers. Even when they saw the third officer pull out his gun, they did not act or purport to act in the performance of their official duties.

(Judge Smith concurred on the state action issue but dissented on the separate question of whether the city, which was also sued, could be sued for its official policy or custom; the majority held that it could not).


1. Notice that in both cases, the two circuits soundly addressed the state action question not abstractly but rather in terms of the particular fact patterns they confronted. The state action question must be decided on a case-by-case basis. There are relatively few, if any, bright line rules.

2. The Barnes case is consistent with the many circuit court decisions holding that a private person who merely reports a possible crime to law enforcement authorities does not thereby become a state actor subject to potential section 1983 damages liability.

3. In Barnes, there is a possible alternative, and non-state action, basis for the decision. Even if the officer’s submission of the complaint were state action, it was not the proximate cause of any resulting 14th Amendment violations. Because he purportedly had no role in the arrest, did not know what crimes the plaintiff would be charged with and was not responsible for the prosecution, the conduct of others involved in those post-complaint decisions constituted a superseding cause breaking the chain of causation. (Search “proximate cause” on this blog for related posts. In addition, I discuss proximate cause at length in ch. 3 of my Treatise).

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Written by snahmod

July 16, 2020 at 11:07 am