Nahmod Law

County of Los Angeles v. Mendez (pending): Section 1983, Proximate Cause and the Fourth Amendment

County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, No. 16-369 (argued March 22, 2017)

The Factual Background

Suppose that police officers, looking for a felony parolee-at-large with an outstanding arrest warrant, engage in a warrantless entry into a home without exigent circumstances (they should have secured a search warrant), and without knocking and announcing, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. They thereby allegedly “provoke” the plaintiff resident’s grabbing a gun (it turns out to be a BB gun), which in turn leads to their shooting and seriously injuring the plaintiff.

The Proximate Cause Questions

Does the plaintiff have a section 1983 Fourth Amendment claim against the officers for damages resulting from the use of deadly force?  The theories underlying such liability are that the warrantless entry into the home either (1) “provoked” the subsequent events or (2)  was the proximate cause of the use of the deadly force which (even if reasonable when viewed in isolation) was the reasonably foreseeable result of the warrantless entry that violated the Fourth Amendment?

These are the questions raised by Mendez v. County of Los Angeles, 815 F.3d 1178 (9th Cir. 2016), a Ninth Circuit decision that ruled for the resident, and as to which the Supreme Court has granted certiorari.

Specifically, in addition to the propriety of the Ninth Circuit’s questionable “provocation” rule, another aspect of the Question Presented is “whether, in an action brought under Section 1983, an incident giving rise to a reasonable use of force is an intervening, superseding event which breaks the chain of causation from a prior, unlawful entry in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

Comments

There have been other section 1983 proximate cause cases before the Supreme Court, but this one is different because it raises reasonable foreseeability (and superseding cause) as the proximate cause test in a split-second decision making setting. Compare Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986), and Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277 (1980), both of which are discussed in sections 3:106-107 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2016).

There is a critical complication in Mendez, however, that must be noted. The Ninth Circuit ruled in Mendez that the defendants did not violate clearly settled Fourth Amendment law in failing to knock and announce, even though they did violate the Fourth Amendment. That is, the defendants were protected by qualified immunity from damages liability-see Chapter 8 of my treatise–for their failure to knock and announce in violation of the Fourth Amendment, meaning that the proximate cause issue related to knock and announce may well disappear.

This is significant because it may weaken the plaintiff’s proximate cause argument. After all, isn’t the failure to knock and announce closely related in time and space to the plaintiff’s reaching for his BB gun? And isn’t this rather clearly reasonably foreseeable? On the other hand, how closely related in time and space is the defendants’ failure to obtain a search warrant to what happened later? Is this as clearly reasonably foreseeable?

The oral argument in Mendez focused on this issue, with various justices wondering about both the cause in fact and proximate cause relationship between the failure to get a search warrant and the resulting use of (constitutional) deadly force. They asked–cause in fact–whether the failure to get the search warrant made a difference in the plaintiff’s reaching for a gun (albeit a BB gun) that resulted in the use of deadly force. Several also skeptically asked–proximate cause–whether the plaintiff’s reaching for a gun was within the scope of the risk created by the failure to get a search warrant.

I suspect that a majority of the justices will rule for the defendants on this proximate cause issue. But going forward, much will depend on how the proximate cause opinion is written.

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Written by snahmod

May 10, 2017 at 10:22 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.

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Written by snahmod

March 29, 2017 at 9:38 am

34th Annual Section 1983 Conference on April 20-21, 2017 in Chicago

I don’t ordinarily advertise on my blog but here comes a commercial.

IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law is hosting the 34th annual Section 1983 Conference in Chicago on April 20-21, 2017. This two-day conference covers all aspects of section 1983 and features the following well-known speakers: Erwin Chemerinsky, Karen Blum, Rosalie Levinson, Kimberly Bailey, John Murphey, Gerry Birnburg and me.

I hope to see you there.

Please check out the brochure, which is below. Note that the early rate expires on April 1, 2017.

http://cle.kentlaw.edu/database/brochures/34th%20Annual%20Section%201983%20Civil%20Rights%20Litigation%20Conference%20Brochure70554751.pdf

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March 20, 2017 at 11:30 am

Political Protests and the First Amendment (Video)

On March 2, 2017, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law presented a two hour program for both non-lawyers and lawyers on political protests and free speech. This program was prompted by the suddenly developing political protests directed at the President’s restrictive travel ban and his proposed actions against immigrants.

I spoke for the first half hour and provided a First Amendment overview (what I termed a “primer”) as well as concrete suggestions for political protestors.

In the second and third half-hours two highly regarded Chicago attorneys, Molly Armour and Ed Mullen, discussed their experiences with political protests and law enforcement. They also offered advice to protestors.

The final half hour, which was quite dynamic, addressed questions from a very engaged audience.

If you are interested in the dos and don’ts of political protest, then this is the video for you. I recommend it highly.

Here is the link: https://kentlaw.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=fc5b4a7c-841e-4db0-a43f-a9d7fad63f6d

I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @NahmodLaw

Written by snahmod

March 19, 2017 at 9:47 pm

Posted in First Amendment

A Section 1983 Primer (12B): Survival and Wrongful Death–What Happens When a Section 1983 Plaintiff Dies or Has Been Killed

The immediately preceding post addressed the section 1988 background of survival and wrongful death claims based on section 1983. It included a discussion of Robertson v. Wegmann, the leading Supreme Court decision dealing with survival of section 1983 claims.

This follow-up post primarily deals with wrongful death.

Background 

While both state survival statutes and state wrongful death statutes reverse contrary common law rules, their purposes are different. Survival statutes allow the cause of action to survive regardless of the death of the plaintiff (or defendant). Wrongful death statutes, by contrast, provide for causes of action to arise in and for the benefit of certain designated persons in order to compensate them for pecuniary losses resulting from a decedent’s death. Furthermore, for wrongful death actions the defendant’s conduct must necessarily be the cause of death; this is not required for survival.

The Leading Case of Brazier v. Cherry, 293 F.2d 401 (5th Cir. 1961)

In a leading decision on survival and wrongful death, the Fifth Circuit, in Brazier v. Cherry, drew no distinction for section 1983 and section 1988 purposes between the applicability of Georgia’s survival statute and its wrongful death statute. The case concerned allegations that police brutality had caused decedent’s beating and death. In concluding that section 1988 required the application of Georgia law in favor of the plaintiff, who was both the surviving widow and the administratrix of the decedent’s estate, the court treated survival and wrongful death concepts alike. Focusing on the “suitable remedies” language of section 1988, after dealing earlier with the “party injured” language of section 1983, the Fifth Circuit stated:

The term “suitable remedies” … comprehends those facilities available in local state law but unavailable in federal legislation, which will permit the full effectual enforcement of the policy sought to be achieved by the statutes. And in a very real sense the utilization of local death and survival statutes does not do more than create an effective remedy. … To make the policy of the Civil Rights Statutes fully effectual, regard has to be taken of both classes of victims.

Thus far, the Supreme Court has not addressed the issue of wrongful death and section 1983. As noted in the preceding post, it simply commented in Robertson, a survival case, that abatement of a section 1983 cause of action where the defendant’s conduct caused the plaintiff’s death was a different issue from that in case before it where death was not so caused. Still, as a matter of section 1983 policy, Brazier‘s approach to the use of wrongful death statutes seems sound and has been generally followed in the circuits. Consider: if a wrongful death statute could not be used for section 1983 actions, it would follow that where a defendant’s unconstitutional conduct immediately caused the death of the decedent, the typical survival statute would also not be applicable. The absurd result would be no vindication at all of the section 1983 claim. Thus, the Fifth Circuit appropriately observed in Brazier:

“[I]t defies history to conclude that Congress purposely meant to assure to the living freedom from such unconstitutional deprivations, but that, with like precision, it meant to withdraw the protection of civil rights statutes against the peril of death.”

Significantly, Brazier‘s reasoning can apply to the use of state survival law as well. Indeed, because the claim in such cases is for the decedent’s loss of his or her life and related damages,the “fit” between survival law and section 1983 may even be better than that between wrongful death law and section 1983. That may be why some circuit court decisions tend in fact to use state survival law in section 1983 cases and confront the “inconsistency” issue–addressed below–regarding damages limitations head on.

Comment

The general rule is that state wrongful death statutes can be used to vindicate a decedent’s constitutional deprivations caused by the conduct of section 1983 defendants that caused his or her death.

In addition–and this is important–to the extent that state wrongful death statutes (and survival statutes) limit the recovery of compensatory and punitive damages, those limitations have been held to be inconsistent with the policies underlying section 1983 and thus found inapplicable to section 1983 wrongful death claims. See, e.g., Bell v. City of Milwaukee, 746 F.2d 1205 (7th Cir. 1984), overruled in part on other grounds, Russ v. Watts, 414 F.3d 783 (7th Cir. 2005), and Berry v. City of Muskogee, 900 F.2d 1489 (10th Cir. 1990). Both of these cases soundly hold that federal damages rules for compensatory and punitive damages govern for both survival and wrongful death claims brought under section 1983.

I discuss these and other cases in section 4:69 of Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2016)(West).

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Written by snahmod

February 13, 2017 at 10:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Section 1983 Primer (12A): Survival and Wrongful Death–What Happens When a Plaintiff Dies or Has Been Killed?

There are times when a potential section 1983 plaintiff dies for reasons unrelated to his or her claim . There are other times when a potential section 1983 plaintiff may have a claim against the person or entity responsible for his or her death. It is crucial to distinguish between the two situations.

In the first, the question is whether the section 1983 claim survives the decedent‘s death so that the decedent’s legal representative can proceed with the section 1983 lawsuit. This raises a survival issue.  In the second situation, the question is whether the decedent’s legal representative can bring a section 1983 claim for the decedent’s death. This raises a wrongful death issue.

Interestingly, the answers to these questions are based, as a matter of federal law, on the survival and wrongful death law of the forum state.

The Relevance of 42 U.S.C. sec. 1988 and the Silence of Federal Law on Survival and Wrongful Death

Section 1988 provides in relevant part that the jurisdiction of federal district courts must be exercised in conformity with federal law “so far as such laws are suitable to carry the same into effect.” However, section 1988 goes on to say that when federal law is deficient in the provision of suitable remedies, state statutory or common law applies, unless it is inconsistent with the Constitution or federal law, in which case that state statutory or common law is not to be applied.

Because federal law is silent on the questions of survival and wrongful death, and therefore “deficient,” section 1988 requires that the survival and wrongful death law of the forum state must be applied unless it is “inconsistent” with the Constitution or federal law.

Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584 (1978): Survival of Section 1983 Claims

In its only section 1983 survival case, Robertson v. Wegmann, the Supreme Court dealt with the meaning of section 1988’s “inconsistent” language in the course of explaining how survival applies to section 1983 claims.

In Robertson, plaintiff Clay Shaw sued district attorney Jim Garrison and others under section 1983 for their alleged bad faith prosecution attempts against him in connection with the assassination of President Kennedy. Shaw obtained an injunction but, before a trial on damages could be held, he died. The executor of Shaw’s estate was then substituted as plaintiff, prompting defendants’ motion to dismiss on the ground that the section 1983 action had abated. Under Louisiana law, Shaw’s action only survived in favor of certain close relatives, none of whom was alive when Shaw died. The district court refused to apply state law because it was thought to be inconsistent with federal law. Instead, the court created “a federal common law of survival in civil rights actions in favor of the personal representative of the deceased.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed, emphasizing the inconsistency between Louisiana law and the broad remedial policies of section 1983, as well as the need for uniformity in civil rights actions.

However, the Supreme Court reversed. Applying section 1988, it found that Louisiana survival law generally was both reasonable and not inconsistent with the compensation and deterrent purposes of section 1983, despite the fact that the section 1983 action abated in this unusual case. It said:

A state statute cannot be considered “inconsistent” with federal law merely because the statute causes the plaintiff to lose the litigation. . . . § 1988 quite clearly instructs us to refer to state statutes; it does not say that state law is to be accepted or rejected based solely on which side is advantaged thereby.

The Court added that its decision was to be read narrowly because Louisiana law generally was not “inhospitable” to survival of § 1983 actions and the particular result here had “no independent adverse effect on the policies underlying § 1983.” Significantly, it also observed that the case before it was far different from one in which the unconstitutional conduct actually caused the death; that is, this was not a wrongful death action.

Comment

Robertson indicates that state survival law will almost always govern the survival of section 1983 actions except in extreme situations as where, for example, state law significantly discriminates against those types of actions, including section 1983 actions, that do not survive.

The general rule, then,  is that section 1983 damages actions that are intended to redress the constitutional deprivations of the decedent while he or she was alive survive the death of the plaintiff if such survival would be the result under applicable state law.

I collect circuit court decisions dealing with survival in section 4:66 of CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2016; West).

Next Post: Section 1983 Wrongful Death Claims

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Written by snahmod

February 1, 2017 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized