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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

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

Section 1983 Police Officer Liability for Driving Recklessly

Protecting Police Officers from Section 1983 Damages Liability

By now, many of us know that section 1983 doctrines are highly protective of police officers sued for violating citizens’ constitutional rights. Fourth Amendment law itself has become more officer-protective with its emphasis in excessive force cases on the perspective of the officer at the time of the occurrence. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S.386 (1989).  And the added layer of protection for officers, qualified immunity, has repeatedly been described by the Supreme Court as protecting “all but the plainly incompetent” from damages liability. See generally on qualified immunity, ch. 8 of my treatise, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 (4th ed. 2015).

High-Speed Police Chases, the Fourth Amendment and Qualified Immunity

In high-speed police chases that involve a seizure and therefore implicate the Fourth Amendment, the pro-officer approach of the Supreme Court is particularly obvious. For example, 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 February 12, 2016. A prior 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 derived 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.

High-Speed Police Chases and Substantive Due Process

Furthermore, even in cases that don’t involve a Fourth Amendment seizure but instead implicate substantive due process, the Supreme Court has required a very high standard of culpability–a purpose to do harm–that is incredibly difficult for a plaintiff to surmount. County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998).

A Rare Case of Section 1983 Police Officer Liability: Browder v. City of Albuquerque, 2015 WL 3462180 (10th Cir. 2015)

Now consider a substantive due process case where, because it did not involve a high-speed chase that was legitimate from a law enforcement perspective, the result was dramatically different.

The Tenth Circuit in Browder set out the facts this way:

“[The defendant] was going nowhere fast. After finishing his shift at the Albuquerque police department and on no one’s business but his own, he got into his police cruiser, flipped on the emergency lights, and drove off at an average of about 66 miles an hour on city surface streets through ten different intersections over a stretch of 8.8 miles. Then he reached an eleventh intersection. The light was red. He pressed the gas pedal, ignored the light, and the result was a terrible crash. “

A woman died and her sister was seriously injured. Their representative sued the police officer under section 1983 alleging a substantive due process violation.

Affirming the district court which denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, the Tenth Circuit pointed out that this was not a case involving a possibly legitimate government objective. Further, there was sufficient evidence of reckless indifference to the lives of others, a kind of mens rea, because the defendant was not responding to any emergency or on any official business at all. Moreover, the defendant violated clearly settled law in 2013, the time of the accident, and thus was not entitled to qualified immunity.

Comment

Notice that the Tenth Circuit did not use the pro-defendant County of Sacramento test with its very high standard of culpability–purpose to do harm– because the officer was not engaged in a high-speed chase of a suspect. Instead, it used the somewhat lower standard of reckless indifference, although this was accompanied by a reference to County of Sacramento and the alleged mens rea of the officer.

Also observe that while there is an interesting question whether the police officer in Browder acted under color of law, the parties accepted that there was state action and the Tenth Circuit agreed without deciding the question.

 

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Written by snahmod

August 2, 2016 at 2:00 pm

What Does It Take to “Shock the Conscience” in the Classroom?

Substantive Due Process and the “Shocks the Conscience” Test

Many of us know of the substantive due process test of “shocks the conscience” and the very high hurdle it presents for section 1983 plaintiffs in cases in which it applies.

In Domingo v. Kowalski, 810 F.3d 403 (6th Cir. 2016), the Sixth Circuit appears to have made it close to impossible for students to successfully sue their teachers for violating substantive due process in the classroom.

The Domingo Facts and Ruling

In this case, parents of special education students sued their teacher, alleging substantive due process violations for the following, all of which occurred in the classroom: “abus[ing] her students … by, among other things, gagging one student with a bandana to stop him from spitting, strapping another to a toilet to keep her from falling from the toilet, and forcing yet another to sit with her pants down on a training toilet in full view of her classmates to assist her with toilet-training.”

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the teacher on the ground that the teacher’s conduct did not shock the conscience and thus did not violate substantive due process. It applied the four-part test of the Third Circuit in Gottlieb v. Laurel Highlands School Dist., 272 F.3d 168 (3rd Cir. 2001): (1) though the techniques used by the teacher were inappropriate, they were done for a legitimate pedagogical purpose; (2) the force used was not excessive; (3) the teacher did not act with malicious or sadistic intent; and (4) there was no evidence of any serious physical or psychological injury.

Judge Batchelder concurred in part and concurred in the judgment, 810 F.3d 403, *416, while Judge Boggs dissented in part, 810 F.3d 403, *417, arguing that one student’s claim arising out of the teacher’s binding and gagging him because he was disruptive and spitting should have gone to the jury: this particular discipline was never repeated even though the student’s conduct occurred several other times; the teacher’s conduct was the subject of severe criticism by a teacher’s aide; there may well have been no legitimate pedagogical justification for the teacher’s conduct; and the degree of force used could be understood as malicious or sadistic.

Comment

What to me is particularly troublesome about Domingo is the third part of the test, borrowed from the Third Circuit, that the teacher must have acted with malicious or sadistic intent. That is such a high standard and is so protective of section 1983 defendants that it is ordinarily reserved for prison guards enforcing prison security, Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294 (1991)(malicious and sadistic intent), and for police officers engaged in high speed car chases, County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998)(purpose to do harm). In both these kinds of cases, split-second decision-making involving physical well-being is required and, as a matter of policy, we don’t want to chill such decision-making unduly.

But this consideration–providing a margin for error for split-second decision-making–does not apply with the same force in the classroom. Furthermore, the classroom contains minors who are particularly vulnerable to abuse by their teachers.

I agree that we should not ordinarily constitutionalize teacher error. However, we should not immunize it from meaningful judicial review and section 1983 accountability in egregious cases such as Domingo.

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Written by snahmod

July 6, 2016 at 2:30 pm

Certiorari Granted in Important Section 1983 Malicious Prosecution Case: Manuel v. City of Joliet

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 handed down on January 28, 2015.

Manuel, which will be argued in the Supreme Court’s 2016 Term, has the potential to be a blockbuster section 1983 decision that radically transforms the section 1983 malicious prosecution landscape. Such a transformation would have a dramatic impact on section 1983 claims brought for wrongful conviction and incarceration.

Here is the Question Presented: “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 have all answered this question in the affirmative, while only the Seventh Circuit, in Newsome v. McCabe, 256  F.3d 747 (7th Cir. 2001), has answered in the negative.

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 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.”

The issues raised in Manuel  have been a matter of great interest to me for some time. See my post of Sept. 11, 2009, about the basic elements of so-called section 1983 “malicious prosecution” claims. In that post I 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 now provides the Court with its first opportunity in over twenty years– see Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266 (1994)–to consider the elements of such claims.

Recall that Albright was a splintered decision in which a plurality held that substantive due process could not be used as the basis for section 1983 malicious prosecution claims. See sections 3:65-3:66 of my treatise,  CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2015 West).

In the course of considering Manuel, the Supreme Court will likely address the relevance of available state remedies. It will likely also discuss the Fourth Amendment “continuing seizure” theory that Justice Ginsburg articulated in Albright, a theory that the Seventh Circuit has rejected.

Written by snahmod

March 24, 2016 at 1:26 pm

All My Constitutional Law Posts to 10-12-15

This is Part II of the All My Posts Series to 10-12-15. Part I, also posted today, deals with Section 1983.

Please search within the post for any cases, topics and the like that you are interested in.

PART II: CONSTITUTIONAL LAW

All My Videos: Constitutional Law, Section 1983 and SCOTUS

Know Your Constitution (1): The Structure of Government

Know Your Constitution (2): Myths About the Constitution

Know Your Constitution (3): Myths About the Supreme Court

Know Your Constitution (4): What Is Equal Protection?

Know Your Constitution (5): Free Speech and Hate

Know Your Constitution (6): What Is Procedural Due Process?

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

Know Your Constitution (8): What is State Action?

A Short Video on Equal Protection Basics

Class-of-One Equal Protection Claims: Uncertainty in the Seventh Circuit

Marbury v. Madison: Some Additional Lessons

McCulloch v. Maryland: Exegesis and Constitutional Education

The Commerce Clause

The Dormant Commerce Clause

Brown v. Board of Education

Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action and Fisher v. University of Texas: A Video Discussion

The Fisher Case on Affirmative Action and the Shelby County Case on Voting Rights: Two of a Kind

The Equal Protection Clause and Fundamental Interests

Supreme Court Decisions, 2007-2008: A Video Presentation

Supreme Court Review: 2009 Term (video)

Anti-SLAPP Statutes in Federal Courts

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: The Commerce Clause and Constitutional Trust

Individual Mandate Upheld–Medicaid Expansion Upheld (Mostly)

The Health Care Act Decision: A Video Discussion

The Constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: A Video Presentation

Gun Control, the Second Amendment and Section 1983 After McDonald v. Chicago

The Second Amendment and Gun Control: Unanswered Questions

DeShaney in the Circuits: Affirmative Duties and Danger-Creation

DeShaney in the Circuits (II): Affirmative Duties and Danger-Creation

DeShaney in the Circuits (III): The Fifth Circuit En Banc Holds the Line

DeShaney in the Circuits (IV): The Seventh Circuit’s Reformulation

DeShaney in the Circuits (V): The Third and Tenth Circuits Weigh In

DeShaney in the Circuits (VI): Some Recent Decisions

Oyez’s Fourth Amendment Deep Dive

Kingsley v. Hendrickson: New Supreme Court Pretrial Detainee Excessive Force Decision

Written by snahmod

October 12, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Posted in Constitutional Law

Kingsley v. Hendrickson: New Supreme Court Pretrial Detainee Excessive Force Decision

Kinsgley v. Hendrickson: What Standard Governs Pretrial Detainee Due Process Excessive Force Claims?

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and then reversed the Seventh Circuit in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S. Ct. – (2015)(No. 14-6368), revg Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 744 F.3d 443 (7th Cir. 2014)(Judge Hamilton dissenting), a case involving the proper excessive force standard applicable to pretrial detainee claims brought under substantive due process. In this case, the plaintiff pretrial detainee alleged that the use of a taser against him constituted excessive force in violation of due process.

The Question Presented was “[w]hether the requirements of a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force claim brought by a plaintiff who was a pretrial detainee at the time of the incident are satisfied by a showing that the state actor deliberately used force against the pretrial detainee and the use of force was objectively unreasonable.”

The Court’s Opinion

In an opinion by Justice Breyer, the Court rejected the subjective inquiry used by the district court—that there must be “an actual intent to violate [the plaintiff’s] rights or reckless disregard for his rights”–and affirmed by the Seventh Circuit. Instead, the Court declared that the proper standard in such pretrial detainee substantive due process cases was one of objective reasonableness, the same standard required by the Fourth Amendment for police officers making arrests in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). The Court did not accept the defendant correctional officers’ contention that because this was a prison setting, under Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979), the plaintiff pretrial detainee was required to prove that he was “punished” by them, meaning that at the least the defendants must have been subjectively aware that their use of force was unreasonable.

The Court went on to explain why this objective reasonableness standard would not unduly burden corrections officers. For one thing, the use of force must be determined from the perspective of a reasonable corrections officer at the time. For another, the objective reasonableness standard was workable and consistent with the pattern jury instructions used in several Circuits. For a third, the standard adequately protected corrections officers who acted in good faith because jail circumstances, including security and order, must be taken into account in making the objective reasonableness determination. Finally, the availability of qualified immunity to corrections officers provided an additional margin for error. See Chapter 8 of NAHMOD, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2014)(West).

The Dissents

Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, dissented, arguing that “punishment” was required under due process and that the infliction of objectively unreasonable force, standing alone, was not sufficient for this purpose. They also questioned whether a pretrial detainee had a liberty interest in freedom form objectively unreasonable force. Justice Alito also dissented, maintaining that certiorari was improvidently granted. In his view, the Court should first determine whether a pretrial detainee can bring a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim before reaching the substantive due process claim involved in Kingsley.

Comments

Kingsley is a sound decision. It finally puts to rest the split in the circuits regarding the proper excessive force standard for pretrial detainees, an issue that had been percolating in the circuits for some time.

In addition, so long as relevant security factors are plugged into the objective reasonableness inquiry, pretrial detainees are not being unduly advantaged to the detriment of the need to maintain security and order.

Perhaps most important, it would have been fundamentally unfair for pretrial detainees, who by definition have not been convicted of anything, to be governed by a subjective inquiry of the sort the governs excessive force claims brought under the Eighth Amendment by those already convicted. Kingsley property treats pretrial detainees as free citizens in this context.

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Written by snahmod

June 22, 2015 at 4:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

DeShaney in the Circuits (VI): Some Recent Decisions

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. 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 and the most recent was on August 28, 2014.

Here are four 2014 DeShaney-related decisions from the Fifth and Eighth Circuits and the Supreme Court of New Jersey. I came across these cases when preparing the 2015 Update to my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. West).

Fifth Circuit: Lance v. Lewisville Independent School District

Where a fourth grade special needs student who had been bullied locked himself inside the school nurse’s bathroom and then took his own life, his parents and his estate sued the school district under § 1983 and substantive due process. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the school district. The Fifth Circuit rejected the application of the special relationship theory, the state danger-creation theory and the caused-to-be-subjected theory. No special relationship between the decedent and the school district existed in the case pursuant to the en banc decision of the Fifth Circuit in Doe ex rel Magee, 675 F.3d 849 (5th Cir. 2012)(en banc). Also, there was no genuine issue of material fact in dispute regarding the state-created danger theory even if that theory were to be applied: the school district did not affirmatively place the decedent in danger, there was no evidence that the school district knew that decedent’s suicide was imminent and the plaintiffs did not show that the school district created a dangerous environment for the decedent. Finally, the caused-to-be subject theory has not been adopted by the Fifth Circuit. Lance v. Lewisville Independent School District, 2014 WL 805452 (5th Cir. 2014).

Eighth Circuit: Montgomery v. City of Ames and Gladden v. Richbourg

The plaintiff sued a city, police officers and others alleging a substantive due process violation arising out of the shooting of the plaintiff by a third person who broke into her house and shot her three times. She alleged that the defendants created the danger that the assailant would attack her through their deliberate indifference. Montgomery v. City of Ames, 2014 WL 1387033 (8th Cir. 2014). Ruling for the defendants on this issue, the Eighth Circuit noted that the assailant was subject to a protective order, stemming from his conviction for domestic-abuse assault, which prohibited him from being near the plaintiff and from contacting her. However, it determined that the police officer who spoke with the assailant about the plaintiff’s allegations, but did not arrest him despite plaintiff’s warnings, did not act with the requisite deliberate indifference to her safety. There were conflicting accounts about whether the assailant had in fact violated the protective order, and this meant a reasonable jury could not conclude that the officer acted recklessly or in a conscience shocking manner just because he did not arrest the assailant before an investigation the next day.

In Gladden v. Richbourg, 2014 WL 3608521 (8th Cir. 2014), the decedent died of hypothermia after police officers, who had determined that he was mildly intoxicated, took him from a restaurant in a city to an isolated off-ramp outside the city at the county line even though he had asked the officers to take him to his sister’s house in the next county. The decedent’s due process rights were not violated, according to the Eighth Circuit. There was no special relationship because the harm suffered did not occur in police custody. Also, the officers did not act with the requisite reckless/conscience shocking state of mind under the danger creation theory because, even though it was bitterly cold, decedent was only mildly intoxicated, appeared functional to the officers throughout, and thus appeared able to make his way to a guard shack a short distance from where he was dropped off.

Supreme Court of New Jersey: Gormley v. Wood-El

In Gormley v. Wood-El, 2014 WL 2921824 (S. Ct. N.J. 2014), the plaintiff attorney, assigned to represent an involuntarily committed patient at a psychiatric hospital, was brutally attacked by her client in the hospital’s unsupervised day room, “a place where psychotic patients milled about and where violence frequently erupted.” The Supreme Court of New Jersey, ruling for the attorney in her § 1983 claim against hospital officials and others, held that the plaintiff had a substantive due process right to be free from state created dangers and that this right was clearly established in September 2005, when the attorney was attacked and seriously injured. The plaintiff was a member of a discrete class of victims subject to foreseeable harm in the volatile day room created by the defendants. Also, the defendants exercised total control over the plaintiff and the day room meeting and they knew of the special dangers that the client might pose to the unsuspecting plaintiff. Further, there was sufficient evidence of deliberate indifference constituting conscience shocking conduct. Among other things, expert testimony indicated that the level of violence in this psychiatric hospital was unique. Justice LeVecchia, joined by Justice Patterson, dissented, 2014 WL 2921824, *20, arguing that the plaintiff did not make out a substantive due process claim and that the defendants in any event did not violate clearly established law.

Comment

As I and others have frequently noted, DeShaney issues typically arise in tragic circumstances, and these cases are no exception. Plaintiffs attempt to end-run the DeShaney no affirmative duty rule by using either the special relationship theory or the danger-creation theory or both.

However, it remains difficult for plaintiffs to prevail even on these theories, as the Fifth and Eighth Circuit cases demonstrate. Only in Gormley did the danger-creation theory work in combination with the special relationship theory by virtue of the total control exercised by the hospital officials over the plaintiff attorney, as found by the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

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Written by snahmod

April 10, 2015 at 11:54 am

DeShaney in the Circuits (V): The Third and Tenth Circuits Weigh In

I have blogged previously about how the DeShaney decision has fared in the circuits. The first time was on 8-22-11; the second time was on 6-1-12; the third time was on 5-20-13; and the most recent was on 6-6-13.

Here are two DeShaney-related decisions from the Third and Tenth Circuits, and some comments. I came across these cases when preparing the 2014 Update to my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. West).

Third Circuit: Henry v. City of Erie

The decedents’ estates sued a city’s housing authority and others alleging that they created the danger that led to decedents’ deaths by fire in Section 8 housing through their approval and subsidization of an apartment even though the apartment did not comply with Section 8’s housing standards because it lacked a smoke detector and a fire escape ladder. Henry v. City of Erie, 728 F.3d 275 (3rd Cir. 2013).

Ruling against the estates, the Third Circuit reasoned that they did not plausibly allege that the defendants’ acts were close enough in time and succession to the ultimate harm: there was a lengthy period of time as well as “intervening forces and actions.” Also, the estates did not allege that the defendants caused the fire or increased decedents’ susceptibility to it. Moreover, the defendants were not responsible for installing a smoke detector or fire escape. “[T]here were too many links in the causal chain after defendants acted and before tragedy struck.” The Third Circuit concluded with the observation that it was declining to expand the state-created danger exception.

Comment: Even though the Third Circuit acknowledged the state-created danger exception to DeShaney, it nevertheless ruled on what seem to be proximate cause grounds (with a hint of causation in fact) that the estates did not  state section 1983 substantive due process claims. This was a way of avoiding the need to decide whether an affirmative duty existed in the first place.

Tenth Circuit: Estate of B.I.C. v. Gillen

Grandparents sued a social worker for damages under the substantive due process state danger-creation theory for her deliberate indifference to extensive evidence of abuse that allegedly led to the death of their granddaughter at the hands of the natural father’s girlfriend (later convicted of murdering the granddaughter). The granddaughter was living with the natural father and his girlfriend at the time. The Tenth Circuit found that the plaintiffs satisfied the requisite showing of affirmative conduct and private violence here.

For one thing, the plaintiffs showed that the defendant’s “inaction” was based on her animus; that is, there was a deliberate decision to ignore based on a decade-long animosity to the family. For another, there were affirmative acts such as the defendant’s refusal to return police phone calls, her refusal to accept photos showing injury, her lying about being in the father’s home, her telling the plaintiffs that allegations of abuse were not her issue but rather for law enforcement and her claiming that these allegations were unsubstantiated. Moreover, the defendant’s conduct was conscience-shocking. Finally, the defendant was not entitled to qualified immunity because she violated clearly settled law in fall 2007. Estate of B.I.C. v. Gillen, 702 F.3d 1182 (10th Cir. 2012). Judge Matheson concurred, 702 F.3d, at 1192, arguing that the court should not have addressed the question whether the defendant’s alleged intentional inaction constituted “affirmative conduct.”

Thereafter, the Tenth Circuit granted the defendant’s petition for rehearing in part, denied en banc review, ordered the original opinion to be withdrawn and substituted an amended version that affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded. Estate of B.I.C. v. Gillen, 710 F.3d 1168 (10th Cir. 2013). In this amended opinion, the Tenth Circuit dealt only with the requirement of conscience shocking conduct and found it here, but remanded to the district court to determine whether other elements on a danger-creation claim, including affirmative conduct, were present.

Comment: The Tenth Circuit was obviously uncomfortable with the broad scope of its prior decision on the state-created danger issue. On rehearing, it therefore addressed only the easier state of mind issue, namely conscience shocking, and had little difficulty finding it here, particularly in light of the defendant’s previously displayed animus. However, in remanding, it wanted to get additional evidence on the affirmative conduct requirement for the state-created danger exception to DeShaney so as to be sure the claim involved more than failure to act.

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Written by snahmod

August 27, 2014 at 11:52 am

Plumhoff v. Rickard: New Supreme Court Section 1983 Fourth Amendment/Qualified Immunity Decision

Deadly Force (Firing Shots) and High Speed Police Chases

On May 27, 2014, the Supreme Court handed down Plumhoff v. Rickard (PDF), 572 U.S.  — (2014) (No. 12-1117), a new Fourth Amendment/qualified immunity decision involving the use of deadly force–firing shots–and high speech chases.

The Plaintiff’s Claim in Plumhoff

Plumhoff involved a high speed chase—it began when an officer pulled over a driver because his car had only one operating headlight–in which police officers shot the driver and a passenger, both of whom died as a result of the shots and the consequent crash. The driver, on whose behalf his daughter filed a § 1983 claim alleging excessive force, made several arguments. First, the police officers who fired at the driver’s car in an attempt to terminate the chase violated the Fourth Amendment. Second, the police officers who fired a total of fifteen shots at the car violated the Fourth Amendment because this was excessive. Finally, the defendants violated clearly settled Fourth Amendment law.

The Court’s Opinion on the Fourth Amendment Merits

In an opinion by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit that had ruled for the daughter. The Court found that the police officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment just because they used deadly force to terminate the chase. Relying on Scott v. Harris, the Court pointed out that here, as in Scott, the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment in terminating a high speed chase posing a grave public safety risk through the use deadly force. The chase lasted over five minutes with speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour; the driver’s outrageously reckless driving put many other vehicles at risk; and even though the driver’s car had come to a temporary halt, that did not end the chase because he continued pushing down on the accelerator in an attempt to escape. At that point an officer fired three shots but the driver continued to drive away. This was followed by an additional twelve shots, with the driver never abandoning his attempt to flee until the crash. The Court emphasized that the officers did not need to stop shooting until it was clear to them that the threat to public safety had ended.

The Passenger

As to the presence of a passenger in the front seat of the car, this was largely irrelevant to the Fourth Amendment issue posed by this case: it was not the passenger’s Fourth Amendment rights that were implicated, it was those of the driver. “[The passenger’s] presence in the car cannot enhance [the driver’s] Fourth Amendment rights.” In this connection, the Court observed in passing that there was disagreement in the circuits as to whether a passenger in this situation even had a Fourth Amendment claim. In addition, if such a passenger pursued a substantive due process claim, he or she would have to prove that the officer had a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest, per County of Sacramento v. Lewis.

Qualified Immunity

Finally, the Court ruled that in any event, the officers did not violate clearly settled Fourth Amendment law as of July 18, 2004, the date of the events in question. The Court’s decision in Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194 (2004), had ruled that a police officer did not violate clearly settled Fourth Amendment law when she fired at a fleeing vehicle to prevent harm to officers she believed were nearby and to protect other citizens. The events in Brosseau occurred in February 1999 and there were no intervening decisions that constituted controlling or persuasive authority that changed this qualified immunity determination.

Justice Ginsburg joined the Court’s opinion as to the judgment and to three parts of the opinion, while Justice Breyer joined the Court’s opinion except as to one part.

Comments

Plumhoff was not a surprising decision. It followed from Scott v. Harris, but expanded that decision to expressly include shooting a fleeing driver who poses a grave risk to officers or public safety. In other words, there is no Fourth Amendment obligation on the part of police officers in these situations to refrain from firing shots, at least while the chase and the danger to others are ongoing.

Plumhoff also emphasized the need for judges doing Fourth Amendment analysis to put themselves in the place of police officers making split second decisions.

It is further worth noting the Court’s insistence that the clearly settled law inquiry not be conducted at too high a level of generality but rather at a fairly fact specific level in Fourth Amendment excessive force cases especially.

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Written by snahmod

May 28, 2014 at 1:14 pm