Nahmod Law

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

Nahmodlaw.com Has Been On Break: Will Resume Next Week

I’ve been out of town for over a month but expect to be back next week and to resume blogging on section 1983, constitutional law and other good stuff.

Regards.

Sheldon Nahmod

snahmod@kentlaw.edu

 

Written by snahmod

January 25, 2017 at 10:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My Lecture on the Supreme Court, Free Speech and Hate Speech (Audio)

One of my most popular posts is Know Your Constitution (5): Free Speech and Hate Speech, which was published on December 4, 2013, and can be found here: https://nahmodlaw.com/2013/12/04/know-your-constitution-5-free-speech-and-hate-speech/

More recently, I was invited to lecture on this topic to a general audience at Moriah Congregation in Deerfield, IL, on November 30, 2016. The attentive and engaged audience consisted of adults attending a continuing series of lectures on Henry Ford and anti-Semitism, with my lecture coming near the end of the series.

Following a gracious introduction by Bruce Ogron, an attorney and graduate of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, I spoke for 45 minutes and then answered some very good questions for another 15 minutes. I enjoyed the experience immensely.

I spoke first about common erroneous assumptions about the Supreme Court. I then moved into the mainstream theories or purposes of free speech, followed by three important considerations in free speech case law, and I concluded with a discussion of hate speech.

I am very pleased to offer this audio of my lecture.

View or Download file via Google Drive, open on Panopto or listen here (no video):

Written by snahmod

December 14, 2016 at 2:35 pm

My Class on Congressional Abrogation of 11th Amendment Immunity and on the Treaty Power (Audio)

On September 28, 2016, I audio-taped a 55-minute makeup class on Congressional abrogation of 11th Amendment immunity, including Kimel, Garrett and Hibbs. The class concluded with an important treaty power case, Missouri v. Holland.

I hope you find it of interest.

Here it is:

listen online (no video content):

  • or download file here

Written by snahmod

December 3, 2016 at 8:16 am

My Class on Presidential Power (Audio)

On October 5, 2016, I audio-taped a 55 minute makeup class on presidential power, including the Steel Seizure, Curtiss-Wright and Dames & Moore cases.

I hope you find it of interest.

Here it is:

listen online (no video content):

  • or download file here

Written by snahmod

November 28, 2016 at 4:36 pm

State Action, Color of Law and Section 1983

I blogged on February 19, 2015, about the Fourteenth Amendment’s state action requirement. Much earlier, on November 29, 2009, I blogged about the seminal section 1983 decision in Monroe v. Pape and its ruling that, where state action is present, section 1983’s color of law requirement is thereby met. Readers should check these posts for important background.

The following cases, from the First, Third and Ninth Circuits, address state action and color of law. Keep in mind that there are several state action tests, including nexus, symbiotic relationship, public/state function and entwinement, any one of which may lead to a finding of state action.

The First Circuit’s Decision in Jarvis v. Village Gun Shop

In Jarvis v. Village Gun Shop, Inc., 805 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2015), gun owners and a nonprofit corporation sued a gun shop as operator of a bonded warehouse alleging violations of due process in connection with the auctioning off of their guns—confiscated by police and transferred to the gun shop– after the owners failed to pay gun shop storage fees. The First Circuit held that the gun shop was not a state actor:

(1) There was no real joint action or interdependence between the activities of the police and the gun shop; it was not sufficient that a state statute authorized police to transfer possession of confiscated firearms to licensed storage facilities.

(2) The public function test was also not satisfied: a licensed storage facility such as the gun shop did not perform a traditionally exclusive government function.

(3) The state compulsion test was similarly not satisfied:  nothing in the state statutory scheme required the gun shop, or any licensed private storage company, to provide its services to the police.

The Third Circuit’s Decision in P.R.B.A. Corp. v. HMS Host Toll Roads, Inc.

In P.R.B.A. Corp. v. HMS Host Toll Roads, Inc., 808 F.3d 221, 225 (3rd Cir. 2015), a “gentlemen’s club” operator sued the private company that ran service plazas on state highway, alleging First and Fourteenth Amendment violations for the removal of the plaintiff’s brochures from the common areas of the service plazas.

The Third Circuit found no state action under the entwinement test or any other test: there was no active and pervasive involvement by the state either in the decision to remove the brochures or in the day-to-day operations of the service plazas. The Third Circuit observed: “[T]he presence of government signs and images of state officials in the service plazas—without more—does not constitute entwinement.”

The Ninth Circuit’s Decision in Naffe v. Frey

In Naffe v. Frey, 789 F.3d 1030 (9th Cir. 2015), the plaintiff, a political activist, sued a county deputy district attorney for publishing allegedly derogatory statements about her on his personal Internet blog and on Twitter.

Affirming the district court’s dismissal of her § 1983 claim, the Ninth Circuit determined that the defendant did not act under color of law because he published for purely personal reasons and the communications were unrelated to his work as a county prosecutor. Further, both his blog and his Twitter page had disclaimers that the opinions expressed were the personal opinions of the defendant and did not represent the opinions of his employer.

In short, the defendant did not exercise government power: even though he used his experiences as a deputy district attorney to inform his blog posts and Tweets, he pursued “private goals via private actions.”

Comments

Plaintiffs in section 1983 cases sometimes try to sue private parties or entities for Fourteenth Amendment violations as a way of getting into federal court and, if they win, getting attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. section 1988. These private parties or entities may also have deeper pockets than some government officials or employees.

The First and Third Circuit cases are relatively straightforward state action cases: these courts marched through the various state actions tests, determined that none of them applied and, as a result, found that the plaintiffs did not state section 1983 claims since the Fourteenth Amendment was not implicated.

In marked contrast, the Ninth Circuit case deals with a different but related question: when does a government official lose his state actor status and act as a private person not subject to the Fourteenth Amendment and section 1983? I call this the “converse of the typical state action question” in chapter 2 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983  (2016; West).

Thus, the Ninth Circuit determined that the deputy district district attorney acted as a private person, and not as a government official or employee, when he published the challenged statements on his personal blog and on Twitter. He did not exercise government power either in reality or apparently.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.

Written by snahmod

November 21, 2016 at 8:38 am

DeShaney in the Circuits (VII): Another Disturbing Affirmative Duty Case Lost by Plaintiffs

I have blogged previously about how the Supreme Court’s controversial DeShaney decision has fared in the circuits. DeShaney held that as a general matter governments have no affirmative substantive due process duty to protect persons from private harm (of course, it’s more complicated than that). The first post was on 8-22-11; the second was on 6-1-12; the third was on 5-20-13; the fourth was on 6-6-13; the fifth was on August 27, 2014, and the most recent was on April 10, 2015.

Here is a particularly disturbing DeShaney-related decision from the Fourth Circuit. I came across it when preparing the now-published 2016 Update to my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. West).

Doe 2 v. Rosa, 759 F.3d  429 (4th Cir. 2015)

In Doe 2, two brothers sued the president of a public military college under section 1983 and substantive due process, alleging that he failed to protect them from being sexually molested by a camp counselor, a former cadet, while at summer camp on campus.

Affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the president, the Fourth Circuit found no liability under the state-created danger approach. Relying on its decision in Pinder v. Johnson, 54 F.3d 1169 (4th Cir. 1995), the Fourth Circuit determined that the president did not create or substantially enhance the danger that the boys faced.

The Fourth Circuit observed that the counselor began abusing the boys in 2005 and 2006, two years before the president could have been aware (through a complaint) that the counselor was a pedophile. Thus the president could not have created a danger that already existed.

Nor did he increase the risk to the boys: there was nothing that the counselor did to the boys during the early summer in 2007 that was not ongoing for two years, and this was all unrelated to any action by the president.

DeShaney had established that continued exposure to an existing danger by failure to intervene was not the equivalent of creating or increasing that danger.

Moreover, even if the boys did face a new or increased risk of abuse, this was not the result of any affirmative acts of the president: his inaction was solely his failure to alert the authorities about the counselor’s past conduct.

Comment

In these kinds of cases plaintiffs have the heavy initial burden of showing the existence of an affirmative due process duty to act in some manner. In order to get around the DeShaney no affirmative duty rule, plaintiffs typically attempt to use one or both of two exceptions: (1) special relationship and (2) danger creation. In Doe 2, there was no special relationship because the president did not himself place the brothers in a situation where they could not protect themselves. The circuits have typically held that even public school officials have no affirmative duty under a special relationship theory to protect their students from sexual abuse by teachers or other students.

That left the plaintiffs with the danger creation theory based on the allegation that he failed to alert the authorities about the counselor’s past conduct. But even that did not work for them because, according to the Fourth Circuit, the president did not play an affirmative causal role in creating or increasing the danger of sexual abuse to them. In other words, he did nothing that changed the situation in which they found themselves. This was determinative of the no-duty outcome in Doe 2, even though the president’s failure to notify authorities was plausibly related as a causal matter to the brothers’ continuing victimization.

Doe 2 is yet another example of the effectiveness of the DeShaney no-duty rule as a gatekeeper in keeping such section 1983 cases out of the federal (and state) courts. All that the plaintiffs alleged was the president’s failure to alert authorities about the counselor’s past conduct; they were not seeking any other form of affirmative protection from him. And still DeShaney applied.

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Written by snahmod

October 4, 2016 at 8:53 am