Nahmod Law

Archive for the ‘Constitutional Law’ Category

Cert Granted in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach: Section 1983 First Amendment Retaliatory Arrest Claims & Probable Cause

Suppose a section 1983 plaintiff alleges that a city had him arrested in retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights. He claims that he was arrested (although never prosecuted) 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.

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 the escape liability. 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. What result?

The Supreme Court granted certiorari on November 13, 2017, in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, No. 17-21, to deal with this very issue. In Lozman, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that probable cause is indeed a defense to a section 1983 First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. Specifically, that court 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 is an element of the section 1983 plaintiff’s retaliatory arrest claim.

This 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 involves 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 Mount 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 had this same First Amendment retaliatory arrest issue before it previously 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. See https://nahmodlaw.com/2012/06/13/new-supreme-court-decision-reichle-v-howards-and-first-amendment-retaliatory-arrests/

Comment: The Court Should Reverse the Eleventh Circuit

In my view, 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 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. This reasoning should apply as well to section 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.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

Written by snahmod

December 4, 2017 at 10:14 am

Proximate Cause and Section 1983 Damages: The Exclusionary Rule’s Attenuation Doctrine and Relating Remedy to Violation

I previously blogged about section 1983 damages actions, proximate cause and the Supreme Court’s decision in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, 137 S. Ct. 1539 (2017). That post and important background can be found here : https://nahmodlaw.com/2017/06/16/county-of-los-angeles-v-mendez-supreme-court-rejects-provocation-rule-remands-on-proximate-cause/

This post continues that discussion of proximate cause and section 1983 damages actions but expands it to include the attenuation doctrine for the exclusionary rule as well as the general principle in equity cases that the scope of the constitutional violation determines the scope of the equitable remedy.

County of Los Angeles v. Mendez

Recall that in Mendez, the Court remanded to the Ninth Circuit to determine whether the warrantless entry into the plaintiff’s residence without exigent circumstances–a violation of the Fourth Amendment–was the proximate cause of the reasonable shooting of the plaintiff by police officers when he picked up his BB gun as they entered.

At issue in Mendez will be the proximate cause approach on remand: is it the reasonable foreseeability approach, the scope of the risk approach or some combination? A reasonable forseeability approach is potentially broader, more pro-plaintiff and means the the proximate cause issue is left to the jury where reasonable persons can differ. A scope of the risk approach is potentially narrower and more pro-defendant. It gives the court a bigger role because it implicates the legal question of the purposes of the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement–the protection of the home and privacy–and whether what happened to the plaintiff was within the scope of those purposes.

The Exclusionary Rule and the Attenuation Doctrine

A comparable proximate cause issue arises in connection with the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule and the fruit of the poisonous tree. Here, the question is whether the link between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence is too attenuated to justify suppression. If it is too attenuated, suppression will not promote deterrence and therefore the evidence should be admitted. See Utah v. Streiff, 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016).

Note that the proximate cause focus in the exclusionary rule setting is deterrence while in the section 1983 setting it is both compensation and deterrence. Interestingly, in Streiff, where the Court admitted the evidence, Justice Kagan dissented, arguing that the correct attenuation doctrine/proximate cause approach there was reasonable foreseeability and that the evidence should therefore not have been admitted.

The Broader Question: Relation Between Constitutional Violation and Remedy

As I see it, these kinds of proximate cause issues are part of a broader question: the relation between the scope of the constitutional violation and the scope of the judicial remedy.  In the famous school desegregation case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, 402 U.S. 1 (1971), the Court set out the general equitable rule for judicial desegregation decrees: the scope of the equal protection violation–de jure segregation encompassing every aspect of school operations–permitted district courts to issue similarly broad remedial decrees so as to eliminate every vestige of the de jure segregation.

These proximate cause/attenuation doctrine issues in the section 1983 and exclusionary rule situations therefore implicate attempts to make the remedy coextensive with the constitutional violation. But the proximate cause/attenuation rules are not identical in the two situations, according to a majority of the Supreme Court, because the policy considerations are different.

I personally would reason in a pro-plaintiff and a pro-criminal defendant way in both situations, with the result that the reasonable foreseeability approach should govern. At the very least, it should govern in the section 1983 damages situation because both compensation and deterrence are critical purposes of section 1983 liability.

Thus, I would apply the reasonable foreseeability approach in Mendez on remand.

 

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

 

Written by snahmod

October 30, 2017 at 9:58 am

Freedom of Speech (6): Fighting Words

This post answers three questions.

1. What are fighting words?

2. Are fighting words protected by the First Amendment?

3. If not, why not?

What are fighting words?

It is fair to say that the category of fighting words has been significantly limited in the years since Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), the seminal fighting words case discussed below. As I read the subsequent cases, fighting words are in-your-face insults that can be based on race, ethnic origin, religion or sex but don’t necessarily have to be. For example, going right up to someone and yelling a profane insult about that person’s mother may constitute fighting words. But carrying a banner across the street from that person with the same message does not constitute fighting words that can be punished.

Fighting words are not protected by the First Amendment

The Supreme Court explained it this way in Chaplinsky:

There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and the obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words–those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. … [S]uch utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

Why are fighting words not protected?

The Court’s answer in Chaplinsky is several-fold.

First, there is an historical basis, according to the Court, namely, that it has never been thought otherwise. But this is not entirely satisfactory because the Court also lists the lewd and the profane, both of which (so long as not obscene) are now protected by the First Amendment. In addition, the Court lists the libelous, but this category has now been significantly limited by New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), which constitutionalized defamation as it affects not only public officials and public figures but also private persons where the speech is on an issue of public concern.

Second, the Court suggests that fighting words tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, a justification reminiscent of the clear and present danger test of Holmes and Brandeis. But this too is not a satisfactory explanation: where fighting words are present, there is no inquiry into whether in fact there is a clear and present danger. Perhaps the answer is that one’s violent reaction to fighting words is immediate and instinctive; there is no time for counterspeech. [Note, though, that one who responds violently to fighting words is not immune from criminal punishment for his conduct]

Third, the Court engages in what has been called categorical balancing. Namely, it balances the free speech interest in, say, fighting words, against the social interest in order and morality, and finds that as a general matter, the latter trumps the free speech interest. Interestingly, the Court thereby engages in content discrimination which is otherwise not permitted to governments acting in a regulatory role. Moreover, categorical balancing appears inconsistent with the marketplace of ideas rationale.

The exclusion of fighting words and the other categories from First Amendment protection (or coverage) reflects what has been called the “two-tier theory” of the First Amendment, a theory that is based on the content of speech.

 

(For much more on the First Amendment search “free speech” on this blog)

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

 

 

Written by snahmod

September 11, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Does the Fourth Amendment’s Exclusionary Rule Apply in Section 1983 Cases? The Circuits Answer No

In Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961), the Supreme Court held that the exclusionary rule—-under which evidence obtained by law enforcement officers who engage in searches or seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment may not ordinarily be used against criminal defendants at trial—-applied to the states. This Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule remains the general rule, although the Court has introduced various exceptions to it. For example, in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984), the Supreme Court created a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule in criminal cases where a search warrant is obtained from a neutral magistrate.

Does the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule also apply in section 1983 cases where, say, police officer defendants wish to introduce evidence against plaintiffs and in support of their defense position? In Lingo v. City of Salem, 832 F.3d 953 (9th Cir. 2016), the Ninth Circuit said that it was joining the First, Second, Fifth and Eleventh Circuits in holding that the exclusionary rule does not apply in section 1983 cases.

In Lingo, the plaintiff arrestee sued police officers alleging an unconstitutional arrest without probable cause that arose out of a violation of the Fourth Amendment when the officers entered the curtilage of her home to approach the back door. According to the plaintiff,  that initial unconstitutional entry led to the eventual discovery (through smell) of evidence of marijuana use, the “fruit” of the poisonous tree, and thereafter brought about her unconstitutional arrest. In the state court criminal case, the trial court agreed and suppressed this evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, with the result that criminal charges were dismissed.

In this section 1983 case, the plaintiff argued that the officers should not be permitted to introduce evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment to show probable cause to arrest her. Rejecting her argument, the Ninth Circuit held that this evidence, even though obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, was indeed admissible.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that, unlike in criminal cases where the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to remove any incentive for police to violate the Fourth Amendment and incriminate a suspect, the need for deterrence was minimal in section 1983 cases. And even if there were some need for deterrence, the costs of the exclusionary rule to police officers would be excessive. Specifically, the court explained:

[Compared to removing the incentive to violate the Fourth Amendment in criminal cases, in section 1983 cases] the need for deterrence is minimal. Here, application of the exclusionary rule would not prevent the State from using illegally obtained evidence against someone, but instead would prevent state actors merely from defending themselves against a claim for monetary damages. Exclusion of evidence in this context would not remove any preexisting incentive that the government might have to seize evidence unlawfully. It would simply increase state actors’ financial exposure in tort cases that happen to involve illegally seized evidence. In effect, section 1983 plaintiffs would receive a windfall allowing them to prevail on tort claims that might otherwise have been defeated if critical evidence had not been suppressed. Even if such application of the rule might in some way deter violative conduct, that deterrence would impose an extreme cost to law enforcement officers that is not generally countenanced by the doctrine.

The Ninth Circuit concluded:

[N]othing within the fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree doctrine suggests that an officer must ignore facts that would give him probable cause to arrest a person merely because those facts were procured through an unlawful search. Indeed, as a general matter, probable cause determinations depend on the substance of the information known to the officer, not whether that information would be admissible in court.

Comment

1. The reasoning and result in Lingo come as no surprise. The Supreme Court has not extended the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule beyond criminal trials.

2. Also, as noted above, the four other circuits that have addressed this issue in a section 1983 context all reached the same conclusion.

3. The Ninth Circuit’s cost-benefit analysis in Lingo is worth noting.

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

Written by snahmod

July 18, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Manuel v. City of Joliet: The Court Rules Section 1983 “Malicious Prosecution” Claims Can Be Based on the Fourth Amendment But Otherwise Punts

Background

Recall that the Supreme Court granted certiorari on January 15, 2016, in Manuel v. City of Joliet, 136 S. Ct. 890 (2016), an unreported Seventh Circuit section 1983 malicious prosecution decision.

Manuel, which was argued on October 5, 2016, had the potential to be a blockbuster section 1983 decision that transformed the section 1983 malicious prosecution landscape, especially for section 1983 claims brought for wrongful conviction and incarceration.

In Manuel, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court dismissing the plaintiff’s section 1983 Fourth Amendment claim that police officers maliciously prosecuted him when they falsified the results of drug tests and thereafter arrested him for possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. The district court relied on Newsome v. McCabe, 256  F.3d 747 (7th Cir. 2001), and the Seventh Circuit panel found no compelling reason to reconsider that precedent. The Seventh Circuit explained: “Newsome held that federal claims of malicious prosecution are founded on the right to due process, not the Fourth Amendment, and thus there is no malicious prosecution claim under federal law if, as here, state law provides a similar cause of action.”

This was the Question Presented in Manuel: “Whether an individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure continues beyond legal process so as to allow a malicious prosecution claim based upon the Fourth Amendment.”

According to the Petition for Writ of Certiorari, the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and D.C. Circuits had all answered this question in the affirmative, while only the Seventh Circuit had answered in the negative.

Manuel raised two separate but related questions.

1. The first was whether the Fourth Amendment could be used as the basis for a section 1983 malicious prosecution claim, including for the period after so-called legal process began–when a judge determined that probable cause existed to hold the plaintiff.

2. The second, implied by the language of the Question Presented, and addressed by several of the Justices during oral argument, was whether the elements of the tort of malicious prosecution–including favorable termination as well as malice and absence of probable cause–should play any role in section 1983 claims challenging wrongful convictions and incarceration. This question was important under the facts in Manuel itself because, without a favorable termination requirement, the plaintiff’s section 1983 claim would be time-barred under the Illinois two-year statute of limitations even if it could be based on the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court’s Decision: Reversed on the Fourth Amendment But Punting on “Malicious Prosecution”

On March 21, 2017, the Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit’s decision that rejected the applicability of the Fourth Amendment after legal process has begun. In an opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court held that there is indeed a Fourth Amendment right to be free from seizure without probable cause that extends through the pretrial period, even though the seizure is “pursuant to legal process.” Specifically, the seizure occurs both before the onset of legal proceedings, i.e, the arrest, and after the onset of criminal proceedings, i.e., where a judge’s probable cause determination is based solely on a police officer’s false statements, as was allegedly the case in Manuel. The Court’s reasoning was similar to the “continuing seizure” approach of Justice Ginsburg’s concurrence in Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266 (1994).

However, the Court remanded to the Seventh Circuit on the favorable termination/accrual question after describing the opposing positions on the issue, including the observation that the United States agreed with the plaintiff in Manuel, as did eight of the ten circuits that have favorable termination requirements.

Justice Kagan’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented, with Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, arguing both that the Fourth Amendment was not applicable in Manuel and that the plaintiff was not entitled to the benefit of a unique malicious prosecution accrual rule based on a favorable termination requirement.

Comments

The Court’s decision on the Fourth Amendment only changes the law in the Seventh Circuit. However, the Court punted on the broader question whether common law malicious prosecution elements, including favorable termination, should play any role in section 1983 jurisprudence outside of situations covered by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), where plaintiffs effectively challenge existing convictions.

These issues–raised, briefed and argued in Manuel– have been a matter of importance to me for some time. In fact, I wrote an amicus curia brief (posted previously) in support of the defendants in Manuel that deliberately did not take a position on the Fourth Amendment issue. Instead, the brief urged the Court to eliminate the confusion caused by the use of malicious prosecution terminology in section 1983 cases. The brief also maintained that the elimination of this terminology would be neutral in its effects on plaintiffs and defendants alike. My treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2016)(West), has for years called for the virtual elimination of most of the tort-like terminology used for such purposes and for a renewed focus on the constitutional bases for such claims.

Manuel provided the Court with its first opportunity in the twenty-three years since Albright v. Oliver to consider the elements of such claims. Regrettably, it did not do so in Manuel. Still, the Court will one day have to deal with these issues, including the favorable termination requirement.

When it does, recently confirmed Justice Gorsuch will be involved in the decision. And it is worth noting that then-Judge Gorsuch concurred in the judgment in Cordova v. City of Albuquerque, 816 F.3d 645 (10th Cir. 2016), where he came out against incorporating the common law tort elements of malicious prosecution, including favorable termination, in section 1983 cases.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

Written by snahmod

May 15, 2017 at 10:05 am

White v. Pauly: Another Supreme Court Signal on Excessive Force and Qualified Immunity

In White v. Pauly,  137 S. Ct. 548 (2017)(per curiam), the Supreme Court once more strongly sent a message that police officers are to be given maximum deference when sued for damages under section 1983 and the Fourth Amendment for using excessive force.

Background

In 2015, the Supreme Court handed down Mullinex v. Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305 (2015), which ruled on qualified immunity grounds in favor of a police officer who allegedly used deadly force in violation of the Fourth Amendment in a high-speed police chase situation. See my post of Feb. 11, 2016.

An earlier decision, Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S. Ct. 2012 (2014), had ruled on the Fourth Amendment merits in favor of pursuing police officers who shot the driver and a passenger. See my post of May 28, 2014.

Both Plumhoff and Mullinex derive from the Court’s decision in Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), which ruled that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he attempted to stop a fleeing driver from continuing his “public-endangering flight” by ramming the driver’s car from behind even though the officer’s actions created the risk of serious injury or death to the driver. According to the Court in Scott, a video of the chase made clear that the officer’s ramming of the car was objectively reasonable.

White v. Pauly: A Police Officer Receives Qualified Immunity for Use of Deadly Force

In White v. Pauly, yet another excessive force case (this one not involving a high-speed chase), the Supreme Court continued to signal lower federal courts and litigants that the clearly settled law inquiry must be made at a relatively fact specific level. In the Court’s words: “This case addresses the situation of an officer who—having arrived late at an ongoing police action and having witnessed shots being fired by one of several individuals in a house surrounded by other officers—shoots and kills an armed occupant of the house without first giving a warning.” The Court ruled that the officer was protected by qualified immunity.

The plaintiff in White, representing the estate of his deceased brother, alleged that three police officers violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against the use of excessive force. The plaintiff was involved in a road-rage incident with two women who called 911 to report him as “drunk” and “swerving all crazy.” After a brief, nonviolent encounter with the women, the plaintiff drove off to a secluded house where he lived with his brother. Thereafter, two police officers—not including Officer White at the time–drove to the house (it was 11 pm) and were moving around outside. The plaintiff and his brother became aware of persons outside and yelled “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” The plaintiff maintained that he and his brother never heard the two officers identify themselves as police—only that the officers said they were armed and coming in. The brothers then armed themselves and began shooting. At that point Officer White, who had been radioed by the two officers, was walking toward the house when he heard the shots apparently directed at the two officers. Plaintiff’s brother then opened a front window and pointed a handgun in Officer White’s direction. One of the other two officers shot at the brother but missed him, followed immediately by White’s shooting and killing the plaintiff’s brother.

The district court denied all three defendants’ motions for summary judgment, and a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit affirmed. Pauly v. White, 814 F.3d 1060 (10th Cir. 2016). As to the two officers, the Tenth Circuit determined that taking the evidence most favorably to the plaintiff, reasonable officers should have understood that their conduct would cause the brothers to defend their home and might result in the use of deadly force against the deceased brother. As to Officer White, the Tenth Circuit ruled that the rule “that a reasonable officer in White’s position would believe that a warning was required despite the threat of serious harm” was clearly established at the time by statements from the Supreme Court’s case law. Judge Moritz dissented, arguing that the majority impermissibly second-guessed officer White’s quick decision to use deadly force.

The Supreme Court then reversed the Tenth Circuit, vacating the judgment against Officer White on the ground that he did not violate clearly established law on the record before the Tenth Circuit. The Court emphasized that it had regularly and repeatedly declared that clearly established law should not be articulated at a high level of generality. In the Court’s view, the Tenth Circuit “failed to identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances as Officer White was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.” Instead the Tenth Circuit improperly relied on general statements from the Supreme Court and circuit court “progeny” that set out excessive force principles “at only a general level.” Furthermore, this case did not present an obvious Fourth Amendment violation: the Tenth Circuit majority did not conclude that the failure to shout a warning was a “run-of-the-mill Fourth Amendment violation.” Finally, the Court expressed no opinion on the question whether the other two officers were protected by qualified immunity. Justice Ginsburg concurred, pointing out her “understanding” that the Court’s opinion did not foreclose denying summary judgment to the two other officers.

Comments

The Supreme Court obviously cannot decide all of the excessive force/qualified immunity cases in the circuits. So it does the next best thing by signalling to the federal judiciary and litigants that it demands maximum deference to police involving the use of excessive force, together with providing (to police) a significant margin for error in making the qualified immunity determination. In White, this was accomplished by finding no clearly settled Fourth Amendment law because of the Court’s insistence on finding a similar case.

Notice that the signalling is also directed at those federal circuit judges who disagree with a denial of qualified immunity by their panels. They are encouraged to do the hard work and write dissents that might encourage the losing police officers to seek certiorari in the Supreme Court, as well as catch the eye of some of the Justices.

Finally, White makes clear to section 1983 excessive force plaintiffs that they must do their clearly established law homework (I call it “time-travel” research) in order to have a decent chance of surviving a defense motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

 

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

 

Written by snahmod

April 21, 2017 at 8:29 am

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.

Comments

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.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @NahmodLaw

Written by snahmod

March 29, 2017 at 9:38 am