Nahmod Law

The Second Amendment and Section 1983 (Podcast): A Section 1983 Conference Encore

As many of you know, Covid-19 prevented Chicago-Kent’s 37th Annual Conference on Section 1983 from taking place, as originally scheduled, on April 23-24, 2020.

Still, in order to celebrate the Conference, several weeks ago I provided an encore podcast presentation on Damages and Procedural Defenses (search for “damages and procedural defenses”).

In order to further celebrate the Conference, I am providing another encore podcast presentation, this one on The Second Amendment and Section 1983, that took place in November 2014.

This presentation covers the basics and is still good Second Amendment law, particularly since the Supreme Court just dismissed as moot a Second Amendment challenge in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn, Inc. v. City of New York, 139 S. Ct. 939 (2019).

You can readily find the podcast by searching on this blog for “second amendment and section 1983.”

Thanks.

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

 

Written by snahmod

May 12, 2020 at 9:40 am

The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine in the Circuits

Despite the broad grants to federal courts of jurisdiction over section 1983 claims by 28 U.S.C. sections 1331 and 1343, there are circumstances where federal jurisdiction over such claims is absent. Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine–see District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 1983)–federal courts have no appellate jurisdiction over state court judgments with respect to modifying or vacating them.

The Supreme Court explained the proper scope of this doctrine in Exxon Mobil v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 125 S. Ct. 1517 (2005)(emphasis added):

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, we hold today, is confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired its name: cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments. Rooker-Feldman does not otherwise override or supplant preclusion doctrine or augment the circumscribed doctrines that allow federal courts to stay or dismiss proceedings in deference to state-court actions.

In other words, section 1983 plaintiffs may not seek in federal court to overturn or review state court judgments as such. Rooker-Feldman is jurisdictional and the parties cannot waive it.

Here are recent Eighth and Seventh Circuit decisions fleshing out this doctrine.

1. For Rooker-Feldman to apply, there must be a state court judgment. The Eighth Circuit ruled in Webb v. Smith, 2019 WL 4051000 , *5(8th Cir. 2019), where the plaintiff parents filed section 1983 claims against social workers alleging constitutional violations in connection with emergency protective custody of their children, that Rooker-Feldman did not apply: “The state courts here never issued any judgments; they entered orders in cases that were later voluntarily dismissed, which under Arkansas law is a decision ‘without prejudice and is not an adjudication on the merits.’” In addition, the plaintiffs here were not trying to get out from under a state court judgment.

 

2. On the other hand, there may be circumstances where Rooker-Feldman applies to interlocutory appeals. The Seventh Circuit observed that it agreed with the circuits holding that “there is a state court ‘judgment’ under Rooker-Feldman, even in the absence of a final appealable order so long as the state-court interlocutory order is “’effectively final.’” In the case before it, the Seventh Circuit determined that a satisfaction of judgment effectively made the foreclosure case against the §1983 plaintiffs final. They had challenged many people and entities involved in the foreclosure proceedings against them, including attorneys, a bank and its employees, a state court clerk, deputy clerks and the judge who presided over the foreclosure proceedings. According to the Seventh Circuit, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would require it to contradict the state court’s orders. Bauer v. Koester, 2020 WL 1042629 (7th Cir. 2020).

 

3. Rooker-Feldman can apply even where the section 1983 plaintiff does not directly attack the relevant state court decision. In Swartz v. Heartland Equine Rescue, 940 F.3d 387 (7th Cir. 2019), the Seventh Circuit found Rooker-Feldman applicable to bar the plaintiff animal owners’ claims that many state and private defendants conspired to deprive them of their goats and horses. Their claims would necessarily call into question various state court decisions dealing with probable cause, placement judgment and a pretrial diversion agreement. Thus, the claims were inextricably intertwined with the federal litigation and the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries were directly caused by the state court’s orders. Moreover, the plaintiffs had a reasonable opportunity to litigate their constitutional claims in state court. Finally, Rooker-Feldman governed even though the plaintiffs did not explicitly challenge the state court decisions and even though neither party had raised the issue in the district court. Rooker-Feldman is jurisdictional and it cannot be waived by the parties.

Those who want to know more about this complicated subject can check out the analysis and collected Rooker-Feldman cases in my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 secs. 1:26-1:30  (2019)(West/Westlaw).

I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @NahmodLaw

Written by snahmod

April 29, 2020 at 11:14 am

Damages and Procedural Defenses (Podcast): A Section 1983 Conference Encore

Today, Thursday, April 23, 2020, was scheduled to be the first day of the 37th Annual Section 1983 Conference, held at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. But as you all know, Covid-19 forced us to cancel.

Still, in order to commemorate the occasion, I am providing an Encore of my presentation ten years ago (2010) on Damages and Procedural Defenses. There were over 160 attorneys from all over the country in attendance.

Rest assured that this material is still good law, it is basic and it has not been undone by subsequent Supreme Court decisions. In other words, it is not recycling for the sake of recycling.

You can easily find the podcast by searching on this blog for “damages and procedural defenses.”

Thanks.

You can follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

Written by snahmod

April 23, 2020 at 9:05 am

Cancelled: April 23-24, 2020, Conference on Section 1983

It took a virus to cancel the previously scheduled 37th Conference on Section 1983 in Chicago, and to stop our streak at 36 consecutive years.

This Conference, with an outstanding group of speakers, was to be held on April 23-24, 2020, at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Regrettably, we had no choice but to cancel because of the corona-virus pandemic.

We fully expect the 37th annual conference to be held in April 2021 (the precise dates have not yet been determined). All of our dedicated speakers have already committed to participate next year. So I can promise you that the 2021 Conference will be better than ever.

If you have any questions, you may contact either our CLE department at cle.kentlaw.iit.edu or me at snahmod@kentlaw.edu.

In the meantime, stay safe.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

 

Written by snahmod

March 20, 2020 at 10:32 pm

Know Your Constitution (10): The Second Amendment

This is the tenth in a series of posts about the United States Constitution written in everyday language with a minimum of legal jargon. These posts are not intended to provide legal advice and should not be used for that purpose.

(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 and substantive due process, as well as state action and, most recently, the free speech rights of public employees).

Overview

The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the People to keep and bear arms, shall not be abridged.”

While most legal scholars previously thought, consistent with then-existing precedent, that the Second Amendment dealt solely with the military, the Supreme Court nevertheless held in 2008 in the blockbuster Heller case that the Second Amendment is not limited to the military context.  Rather, it protects an individual’s right to possess a handgun in the home for self-defense. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008)(5-4 decision, with the lengthy majority opinion written by Justice Scalia).

Significantly, Heller (and Justice Scalia) expressly did not call into question: (1) prohibitions against the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally deficient; (2) prohibitions against the possession of “unusual” firearms such as machine guns; and (3) prohibitions against carrying firearms in schools and government buildings. In addition, Heller made clear that government regulation of commercial sales and purchases of firearms is not necessarily unconstitutional, and that the same is true for licensing requirements for individuals.

What Heller did not address is whether and to what extent Second Amendment protection extends beyond the home and covers open and concealed carry. Namely, is the self-defense rationale of Heller limited to the home? These questions continue to engage the lower federal courts because the Supreme Court has not addressed them as of this writing. The only post-Heller Supreme Court decision thus far is McDonald, where the Court not surprisingly ruled that the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments as well as to the federal government and the District of Columbia. McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010). But it is only a matter of time, now that the Court has a full complement of justices, before the Court considers these questions.

Some Basic Principles Everyone Should Know (Not Just About the Second Amendment)

1. Constitutional rights run against government: private persons cannot violate any of your constitutional rights, including the Second Amendment. (The only possible exception is your Thirteenth Amendment right not to be subject to involuntary servitude). But if a police officer were to arrest you in alleged violation of your Second Amendment rights, or if a government were to deny you a firearm license, that’s different.

2. Constitutional rights are not absolute, whether it’s the Second Amendment, the First Amendment or any of the other individual constitutional rights. All are governed by the appropriate balancing test articulated by the Supreme Court for different constitutional rights. It is not yet clear what the test is for alleged Second Amendment violations.

3. The Second Amendment means whatever the Supreme Court says it means. The Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land and what is provisions mean is ultimately for the Supreme Court to determine through judicial review (unless there is a constitutional amendment).

4. All constitutional rights have costs. This is crucial to keep in mind. The Second Amendment is a good example since firearms can cause harm. The First Amendment is another good example since protected speech can cause harm as well.

5. One last point: constitutionality and wisdom are not the same. Some gun control legislation, for example, might be wise but still unconstitutional. Conversely, some gun control legislation might be unwise but still constitutional. The Second Amendment sets a constitutional floor or minimum. But so long as legislative regulations of firearms comply with this floor, they are subject only to the political process.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

Written by snahmod

March 12, 2020 at 9:15 am

Posted in Constitutional Law

Takings Claims Against States After Knick: Some Unanswered Questions

The Knick takings decision

The Supreme Court, in Knick v. Township of Scott, 139 S. Ct. 2162 (2019), a game-changing 5-4 takings decision, overruled Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985). In Knick, the district court had dismissed a property owner’s section 1983 takings claim for damages against a local government because she had not pursued an inverse condemnation action in state court against the local government as required by Williamson County. The Court, reversing in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, declared:

We now conclude that the state-litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs, conflicts with rest of our takings jurisprudence, and must be overruled. A property owner has an actionable Fifth Amendment takings claims when the government takes his property without paying for it. … [This means] that the property owner has suffered a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights when the government takes his property without just compensation, and may therefore bring his claim in federal court under [section] 1983 at that time.

(Knick, its relation to Williamson County and its implications for section 1983 damages actions claiming takings against local governments are addressed at length in a previous post here: https://nahmodlaw.com/2019/07/25/the-knick-case-takings-and-section-1983-a-somewhat-different-view/).

What are the implications for section 1983 damages actions claiming takings against states?

Even after Knick, a section 1983 takings plaintiff attempting to sue a state for damages in federal court has to confront two obstacles. The first is the Supreme Court’s decision in Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989), that a state, unlike a local government, is not a suable “person” within the meaning of section 1983. And second, even apart from Will, the Eleventh Amendment would serve as a bar to such a federal court lawsuit since Will also held that section 1983 did not abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity.

A section 1983 takings plaintiff who sues a state for damages in state court in order to avoid the Eleventh Amendment bar would fare no better because, as mentioned, a state is not a suable “person” for section 1983 purposes as a matter of statutory interpretation. A state thus cannot be sued for damages under section 1983 anywhere.

The result is that the section 1983 takings plaintiff suing a state in federal court has to forego his or her damages claim and instead seek declaratory and injunctive relief under section 1983 against the relevant state officials alleging an unconstitutional taking. If successful, the plaintiff would be entitled to attorney’s fees in addition to prospective relief.

In addition, the section 1983 plaintiff seeking damages for an unconstitutional taking could sue state officials in their individual capacities for damages. In many such cases, though, these state officials would likely defend on the ground of absolute quasi-judicial immunity and, as a fallback, on the ground of qualified immunity, arguing that they did not violate clearly settled takings law.

Here is where it gets interesting.

Could a takings plaintiff seeking damages against a state in federal court not use section 1983 but instead rely on the Fourteenth Amendment (which incorporates the Fifth) as the basis for his or her claim? Notice that the section 1983 “person” issue drops out. You may say that there is still a potential Eleventh Amendment problem. But could the Fourteenth Amendment takings plaintiff plausibly make two related arguments. First, that the Fourteenth (and Fifth) Amendments are self-executing, per Knick, and give rise on their own to potential damages liability where there has been a taking without just compensation? And second, that the Fourteenth (and Fifth) Amendments, by virtue of their self-executing nature regarding just compensation (this is where Knick comes in again), abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity? The Fourteenth Amendment, at least insofar as takings are concerned, could be read as modifying the Eleventh Amendment in this respect.

A related question, whose answer might be relevant to the above questions about states, is whether any of this reasoning applies to Fifth Amendment damages taking claims against the federal government. Is the Fifth Amendment self-executing in this respect and does it abrogate federal sovereign immunity? Or has the federal government separately waived its sovereign immunity under the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. section 1491(a)(1), thus avoiding the need to answer the abrogation question?

There you have it. Please feel free to email me at snahmod@kentlaw.edu with any thoughts you may have.

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

 

Written by snahmod

January 31, 2020 at 6:24 pm

Upcoming 37th Conference on Section 1983: April 23-24, 2020

I am pleased to announce that the 37th consecutive Conference on Section 1983 will be held at Chicago-Kent College of Law on Thursday and Friday, April 23-24, 2020.

As always, the Conference features outstanding and experienced scholars and practitioners addressing virtually all aspects of section 1983 and related constitutional provisions. The Conference also includes updates on important recent and forthcoming Supreme Court cases and on attorney’s fees and related ethical issues. In addition, this year we have new presentations on due process, immigration and takings law after Knick.

Here is the registration link: https://cle.kentlaw.edu/conference-detail.asp?productId=426.

Please call our CLE office, 312-906-5090, or connect with the office via email, cle@kentlaw.iit.edu, if you have any questions.

Or, you may email me directly at snahmod@kentlaw.edu.

Here is a chronological listing of each day’s presentations.

Day 1: Thursday, April 23, 2020

Sheldon Nahmod on the basics of the section 1983 claim

Erwin Chemerinsky on individual immunities

Karen Blum on municipal liability

Rosalie Levinson on due process

Erwin Chemerinsky on the Supreme Court’s current and forthcoming Terms

Day 2: Friday, April 24, 2020

John Murphy on practical considerations in section 1983 litigation

Kimberly Bailey on the Fourth Amendment

John Murphy on takings after Knick (concurrent session)

Victoria Carmona on immigration law and section 1983 (concurrent session)

Gerry Birnberg on attorney’s fees and ethical issues

——————————————————————————

I hope to see you there. And if you do attend, please say hello.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @NahmodLaw

 

Written by snahmod

January 15, 2020 at 9:10 am

National Dysfunction and the Impeachment Process

Like families, nations can be dysfunctional. And indeed, the United States, this great Republic, now appears to be dysfunctional. Political parties, as well as individuals, speak past one another, neither trusting nor even listening to the other. This ideological polarization both reflects, and adversely affects, the politically accountable branches of government, the House, the Senate and the Presidency. It even taints the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court. The President in particular is polarizing: many individuals either love him or hate him, with no in-between. The electronic media—TV, radio, cable –don’t seem to help very much: to the contrary, there are far too many conspiracy theories and far too many attacks on so-called “fake news.” There is far too much opinionating and there are far too few facts discussed by the talking heads on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News and other platforms. Indeed, some of the most misguided, and perhaps most dangerous, talking heads even question whether there can be facts independent of politics. Don’t believe them. Objective reality exists.

Some Historical Background

We have been dysfunctional before. The most extreme example of national political dysfunction was the Civil War, which was preceded by vicious political battles over slavery and states’ rights, and culminated in hundreds of thousands of deaths and much destruction. But I want to suggest that Presidential impeachment proceedings are also an indication of a dysfunctional United States, although thankfully they are less extreme examples of such dysfunction than the Civil War was. For example, President Andrew Johnson (Johnson was the assassinated President Lincoln’s Vice President and was a racist as well as a drunk)  was impeached by the House in 1868 but he escaped removal from office in the Senate by one vote. His impeachment reflected a profound national political split over the recently freed slaves and Reconstruction, as well as deep Congressional distrust of him. In 1999, President Clinton’s impeachment by the House, controlled by Republicans, similarly reflected national political dysfunction (Democrats v. Republicans) as well as deep-seated personal hostility toward the President. He escaped removal on political party lines in the Senate because there was not a 2/3 vote to remove him.

President Nixon’s impeachment proceedings resulted in a vote by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 to adopt three Articles of impeachment. But there was never a formal vote to impeach by the House itself (with a Democrat majority) because the President resigned shortly after he made the Watergate Tapes transcript available to the public and was told by Republican leaders that he would not survive impeachment. Fortunately for the nation, the Nixon proceedings were accompanied by the desire of many members of Congress of both parties to get at the facts about the President’s alleged obstruction of justice, abuse of power and willful disobedience of subpoenas issued by the House Judiciary Committee. This is not to say that there was not political polarization at that time as well, both in Congress and among individuals. There was, as many of us remember. But there also seemed to be an emerging national bipartisan consensus to discover the truth.

With this as historical background, I want to say some things about the current House hearings about impeachment involving President Trump, and about impeachment in general. I do not plan to get to the substantive merits of possible charges against the President. It is too  soon to do that because (as I write this)  there has not as yet been an official report from the House Intelligence Committee.

But I would like to set out some legal background in plain English so that we as Americans can better understand the process. I firmly believe that as citizens we have an individual and collective responsibility to do so independently of all of the rabid opinionating surrounding us that threatens to overwhelm us and to distort our thinking. My takeaway message: respect the process regardless of your political views.

The Impeachment Process

It starts with the Constitution which provides as follows in Art II, sec 4 of the Constitution: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” In 1970, then House Minority Leader Gerald Ford said that this means whatever a majority of the House of Representatives says it means at a given moment in history. But this is simply not correct: the historical and legal consensus is that this means an abuse of the power of the office that violates the public trust and runs counter to the national interest. So impeachment is not a criminal trial: criminal conduct is not required, although certain criminal conduct may amount to Treason, Bribery or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Is impeachment political in nature? You bet it is, although not necessarily in the partisan sense. It was intended by the Founders to be the political equivalent of a grand jury indictment. It is definitely not illegitimate. Is it to be taken seriously? You bet it is. It was intended by the Founders to be taken very seriously as a vital component of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances. It is an extreme means of removing from the Presidency any President who is a despot. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the Founders made clear that a President should not be impeached merely for incompetence or because of merely personal or political hostility. It is the purpose of Presidential elections, not impeachment, to deal with these problems.

The Constitution provides for a two-part impeachment proceeding. The first part, in Art. I, section 2,  is investigative and takes place in the House of Representatives pursuant to whatever rules the House puts into place. The House is the sole entity in charge of impeachment and its decisions cannot be reviewed by any federal court, including the Supreme Court. The recently televised investigative proceeding was run by the House Intelligence Committee, with questioning of witnesses first by Democratic Representatives (the majority) and their attorneys, followed by questioning by Republican Representative and their attorneys. Thereafter, the members of the House Intelligence Committee, together with any other House committees investigating Presidential behavior, will issue its report to the Judiciary Committee which will then decide whether or not to recommend Articles of Impeachment to the full House. The full House will then consider whether any of the Articles of Impeachment charge a “High Crime and Misdemeanor” and, if so, will vote on any such Articles. As I mentioned earlier, a President’s refusal to comply with the House’s subpoenas or other requests for information has historically been considered by the House to be an appropriate basis for an Article of Impeachment for obstruction of justice.  If a majority of the House votes in favor of one or more Articles of Impeachment, these go to the Senate for trial: this is the second part of an impeachment proceeding: trial and possible removal.

Senate trials are exceedingly rare. Over the past 230 years there have apparently been only eighteen impeachment trials (including for federal judges) in the Senate, and only two of a President, Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1999).  Procedurally, after the House impeaches a President, the matter proceeds to trial in the Senate, with the Chief Justice presiding as set out in Art. I, sec 3. The Senate has the sole constitutional responsibility for such a trial. Just as is true for impeachment in the House, the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, play no role whatever except insofar as the Chief Justice of the United States presides. But the Chief Justice does not run a criminal trial in the Perry Mason sense: what he does instead is ensure that the Senate trial properly follows its own Senate rules and procedures. There is thus is no trial by jury. Rather, a two-thirds majority of those Senators present is required to convict and thereby remove the President. Once a President is removed, he is disqualified from any other federal office. And if his conduct was illegal, he can thereafter be sued or prosecuted.

This process was enshrined in the Constitution by the Founders and is a crucial part of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances under which each branch of the federal government has its own constitutional responsibilities. It deserves our respect and attention, whatever our politics and whatever our view of the political motivations involved. It is not entertainment. Instead, it is a national teachable moment. The impeachment process is never pleasant for anyone, regardless of the result.

Our Responsibility as Citizens

At the very least, each of us should make up his or her mind based on the facts as developed by the overall impeachment process, and not based on what the talking heads have to say about it. And certainly not based on Facebook, Twitter or any of the other social platforms with their personal attacks and their conspiracy theories that influence far too many Americans and cloud their thinking. If we didn’t  watch any part of the House Intelligence hearing itself, let’s try to get our facts from respected print media such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (but not necessarily from their editorial or op-ed pages). This is our minimum obligation as citizens of the United States.

The great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said 100 years ago: “Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. [They were] courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government….”

The United States will recover from its current national dysfunction when we Americans engage in “free and fearless reasoning.”

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

 

 

 

 

Written by snahmod

December 4, 2019 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Know Your Constitution (9): What Are the Free Speech Rights of Public Employees?

This is the ninth in a series of posts about the United States Constitution written in everyday language with a minimum of legal jargon. These posts are not intended to provide legal advice and should not be used for that purpose.

(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 and substantive due process, as well as state action).

What are the free speech rights of public employees with regard to public employer discipline or punishment?

Notice that I refer to public employees: the First Amendment does not apply to private employees with regard to private employer discipline or punishment.

Notice also that this discussion is about public employer discipline or punishment for speech, and does not concern the free speech rights of public employees as against the government generally. So we’re not talking here about criminal punishment for the public employee’s speech.

With these important qualifications, the short answer to the question is that the First Amendment protects the free speech of public employees with regard to public employer discipline or punishment only under the following circumstances (I call it a three-step dance):

(1) where the public employee speaks as a citizen, and not pursuant to her employment duties and obligations (Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006)) and

(2) where the speech of the public employee is on a matter of public, not private, concern (Pickering v. Bd. of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968) and Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 1983)) and

(3) where the free speech interests of the public employee and society outweigh the public employer’s interests as an employer.

Let me explain these three requirements in a non-technical manner.

(1) If a public employee’s job obligations, for example, require her to report criminal or other misconduct by higher-up officials in her department, and the public employee does so and becomes a whistleblower, the public employee is not necessarily protected by the First Amendment from public employer discipline. This result may seem shocking, and it is to many, because it discourages whistleblowing. But this is current First Amendment law under Garcetti. However, keep in mind that state or local law may provide a separate remedy for such whistleblowers.

(2) But even where the public employee’s speech is not part of that employee’s job obligations, she is not yet over the First Amendment hurdle: the speech must also be on a matter of public, not private concern. For example, if the public employee’s speech primarily concerns an employment related grievance specific to her, such as salary or working conditions, then this would be speech on an issue of private concern, and the First Amendment would not be applicable to the public employer’s discipline for this speech.

(3) Finally, if the public employee has made it this far, then her First Amendment claim becomes subject to a balancing test, under which the court weighs the First Amendment interests of the public employee and society against the interests of the public employer in, say, discipline, morale, work relationships and the like. Most public employees in this situation typically prevail on the First Amendment merits. Still, it takes a lot for public employees to get to the final step of this three-step dance.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

 

 

Written by snahmod

October 30, 2019 at 3:38 pm

A Section 1983 Primer (13): Qualified Immunity

The Background

I have posted previously about absolute immunity, including legislative and judicial immunity. As discussed in those posts, absolute immunity from section 1983 damages liability is intended to protect certain persons who engage in allegedly unconstitutional legislative, judicial and prosecutorial conduct from not only liability but from the very costs of defending.

(see https://nahmodlaw.com/2012/10/25/a-section-1983-primer-7-introduction-to-absolute-individual-immunity/; https://nahmodlaw.com/2013/02/20/a-section-1983-primer-8-absolute-legislative-immunity/; https://nahmodlaw.com/2013/03/14/a-section-1983-primer-9-absolute-judicial-immunity/)

In contrast, qualified immunity from section 1983 damages liability (which covers state and local government officials who are not protected by absolute immunity) is intended primarily to protect these officials from liability itself. However, over the years the Supreme Court has increasingly broadened the scope of qualified immunity so that it often functions like absolute immunity to protect state and local government officials even from the costs of defending.

The Basics

Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense and so it must be raised by the defense. It becomes relevant when state or local government officials are sued in their individual capacities for damages. It once had both a subjective component–actual knowledge– and an objective component–the duty to know clearly settled law. See Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308 (1975). However, in a game-changing decision, the Supreme Court eliminated the subjective part, with the result that qualified immunity is now objective in nature. Harlow v. Fitzgerald,  457 U.S. 800 (1982).

In Harlow and other cases, the Court has emphasized that the qualified immunity determination is for the district court and should be made as quickly as possible, even before discovery. This change was intended by the Court, as a matter of policy, to protect government officials from “insubstantial” claims and thereby minimize the costs of defending.

The qualified immunity inquiry is as follows: as of the time of the challenged conduct, and under the circumstances facing the defendant, would a reasonable official have believed that he or she was violating clearly settled law.

This inquiry is, as noted, made as of the time of the challenged conduct (and is therefore backward-looking), while the constitutional merits of the section 1983 claim itself are decided under current constitutional standards. The Court has since emphasized that the clearly settled law inquiry should be made at a fairly fact-specific level because “fair notice” is what is required. Anderson v. Creighton, 107 S. Ct. 3034 (1987).

However, a case on all fours is not required for a finding of a violation of clearly settled law. Some conduct can be so obviously unconstitutional when it occurred that even without a comparable precedent, the government official violated clearly settled law. Hope v. Pelzer, 122 S. Ct. 2508 (2002). On the other hand, in the past decade and a half, the Court, particularly in law enforcement cases, has taken a much more pro-defendant position on qualified immunity, instructing courts not to make the clearly settled law inquiry at too general a level. For example, see: https://nahmodlaw.com/2019/03/04/city-of-escondido-v-emmons-another-scotus-summary-reversal-in-a-qualified-immunity-excessive-force-case/.

Whose decisions constitute clearly settled law? At the top of the list is a relevant Supreme Court decision. Next is a relevant decision of the particular circuit court of appeals (district court decisions are not clearly settled law although they may be evidence of it). Next is a strong consensus in the circuits. And although I have never seen this, it is even possible that a state Supreme Court decision on the relevant federal constitutional issue could constitute clearly settled law as well.

The qualified immunity inquiry is primarily for the trial judge. The jury should not be instructed about qualified immunity, although the jury’s findings of fact may be relevant to the qualified immunity outcome. Hunter v. Bryant, 112 S. Ct. 534 (1992). And while it is better for the development of constitutional law that the trial judge decide the constitutional merits before deciding qualified immunity, that is not mandatory. Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S. Ct. 534 (1992).

Finally, district court denials of qualified immunity based on the clearly settled law determination (and not on factual disputes) may be appealed immediately by government officials to the circuit court of appeals. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 105 S. Ct. 2806 (1985) and Johnson v. Jones, 115 S. Ct. 2151 (1995).

On qualified immunity generally, see ch. 8 in Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (2019)(West & Westlaw). You might also want to search “qualified immunity” on this blog for additional discussions of qualified immunity decisions.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

 

Written by snahmod

October 7, 2019 at 9:35 am