Nahmod Law

My New Video on Section 1983 Basics

In early December 2013, I delivered a one and one-half hour presentation on section 1983 to the New Mexico Defense Lawyers Association (NMDLA).

This presentation covers the elements of the section 1983 claim, individual immunities (absolute and qualified) and local government liability. It also includes Tenth Circuit cases of relevance to this particular audience.

I refer during the presentation to an outline I provided to the NMDLA audience, but that outline is not necessary in order to learn from my video.

The video is here: http://kentlaw.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer/Default.aspx?id=16b8dbcf-b6b3-4ede-bc77-c0fa13de4840

I hope you will find it of interest and useful.

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January 28, 2014 at 11:59 am

Cert Granted in New Public Employee Free Speech Case: Lane v. Franks

Certiorari Granted in Lane v. Franks

The Supreme Court granted certiorari on January 17, 2014, in a potentially significant public employee free speech case.  The case, Lane v. Franks, No. 13-483, arises out of an unpublished Eleventh Circuit decision, Lane v. Central Alabama Community College, 523 Fed. Appx. 709 (11th Cir. 2013).

In Lane, the plaintiff, the probationary director of a community college’s training program for at-risk youth, discovered that a state representative was getting paid to work for the program he ran even though she had performed no work. He raised these concerns internally but was warned that terminating her would cause problems. He terminated her nonetheless. Thereafter the FBI investigated the state representative with the result that the plaintiff testified before a federal grand jury and, pursuant to a subpoena, testified at the representative’s federal criminal trial for fraud. Subsequently, the plaintiff was terminated by Franks, the president of the community college.

Plaintiff filed a First Amendment retaliation claim under section 1983 against Franks in his individual and official capacities, alleging that plaintiff was fired because of his testimony. The district court ruled for the defendant, and this decision was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit on the ground that the plaintiff’s speech was made pursuant to his official duties within the meaning of Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), or at least owed its existence to his professional responsibilities. The speech was thus not the speech of a citizen on a matter of public concern: rather, the plaintiff  was acting pursuant to his official duties when he discovered that the state representative was not doing work, when he terminated her employment and when he testified pursuant to subpoena. Accordingly, the First Amendment did not apply to protect the plaintiff.

Questions Presented

1. Is the government categorically free under the First Amendment to retaliate against a public employee for truthful sworn testimony that was compelled by subpoena and was not a part of the employee’s ordinary job responsibilities?

2. Does qualified immunity preclude a claim for damages in such an action?

Comments

If you are familiar with my highly critical article on Garcetti, you will recall I argued that Garcetti was unsound and that, at the very least, the “pursuant to official duties” criterion should be narrowly interpreted so as to give as much breathing space as possible to whistleblowers. See my post of December 8, 2009 entitled Public Employee Free Speech: The New Regime.

Note that Lane does not deal with alleged retaliation arising out of the plaintiff’s internal report about the state representative, which is rather clearly speech pursuant to his official duties under Garcetti. Instead it deals with the plaintiff’s subpoenaed testimony, which should be considered the speech of a citizen on a matter of public concern.

Lane will be argued and decided this Term.

 

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January 20, 2014 at 3:16 pm

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 38,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 14 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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December 31, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Blog on Break

I will be grading exams and papers and then taking a vacation. The blog will return next year.

All the best to my readers.

Sheldon

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December 16, 2013 at 5:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Know Your Constitution (5): Free Speech and Hate Speech

This is the fifth in a series of posts, intended for a general audience, discussing the Constitution.   Previous posts introduced the Constitution, rebutted some commonly held myths about the Constitution and addressed the Equal Protection Clause.

Today’s post deals with hate speech and that part of the First Amendment that declares: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”.

I want to emphasize three important take-away points at the outset. One is that the First Amendment protects us from the government; it does not apply to relations between private persons. Second, the First Amendment, like all individual rights in the Constitution, is not absolute. And last, freedom of speech has costs.

What is freedom of speech anyway? There is the joke told years ago by the Russian comedian Yacov Smirnoff. He was confronted by an American bragging about freedom of speech. Smirnoff retorted: “Big deal! We also have freedom of speech in Russia. What we don’t have is freedom after speech.”

One of the most controversial free speech issues involves hate speech, including but not limited to the anti-Semitic kind. Hate speech and anti-Semitism are major concerns in Europe and the Middle East and remain a nagging concern in the US as well. Hate speech can be defined as speech directed at a historically oppressed religious or racial minority with the intent to insult and demean. Hate speech undermines social attitudes and beliefs, it isolates its targets and it tends to silence them because they are often stunned and unable to respond. Hate speech also traumatizes (think of the effect it had on survivors and other Jews when the Nazis threatened to march in Skokie). We all know some of the hateful slurs that are too often directed against Jews, blacks, Latinos and Italians in this country.

What does the First Amendment, through interpretations by the Supreme Court, have to say about hate speech? The short answer is that the First Amendment prohibits government from regulating such speech altogether. This is a very different approach from that of countries in Western Europe that often prohibit such speech, including denials of the Holocaust.

But why should that be? After all, despite the children’s saying about sticks and stones, we know that words can in fact hurt and lead to terrible acts. Words have power.  Words have costs.

One answer is that the First Amendment creates a marketplace of ideas in which everyone can participate. Everyone can try to sell his or her ideas to the marketplace and the buyers in the marketplace eventually decide which ideas have value and which do not, which ideas are truthful and which are not. We are all sellers and buyers in this marketplace.

What is the government’s role in this marketplace of ideas? Basically, the government must stay neutral; it must keep its hands off of the marketplace. The Enlightenment assumption—the assumption of the Framers of the Constitution—that underlies the marketplace of ideas is that people are ultimately rational, they may be persuaded by reason, even though emotions and passions play a major rule in political decision-making.

What kinds of ideas are out there in the marketplace of ideas? Political ideas, artistic ideas, scientific ideas, social ideas of all kinds, whether smart, crazy, far-out, brilliant, dangerous.

However, despite what I’ve just said, there are some communications that are not allowed in the marketplace of ideas. Obscene speech, for one, carefully defined by the Supreme Court, is excluded from the marketplace of ideas. Another kind of communication, child pornography, is also not allowed because its production involves child abuse. The reasons for these exceptions include history and the belief that these kinds of communications have little or no redeeming social value.

So now you’re thinking the following: if there are some exceptions under the First Amendment and its marketplace of ideas, why not also include hate speech as an exception? After all, hate speech surely has little or no redeeming social value. It insults, it demeans, it traumatizes, it silences and there is a consensus in American society that it is valueless at best and dangerous at worst. Why should government not be allowed to prohibit it?

The Supreme Court’s answer to this particular question is that even hate speech contains political ideas, however horrible these ideas may be. When you regulate such speech, you are also regulating ideas. Think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and forbidden words. The Supreme Court has also made clear that just because speech offends people, this is never a justification under the First Amendment for punishing it. Furthermore, we are justifiably suspicious of government when it attempts to regulate speech and ideas. After all, government may have its own political agenda in regulating hate speech—which groups would be protected against hate speech and which not?

Finally, and perhaps most important, think about how the marketplace of ideas functions: even if hateful ideas are communicated, the theory (hope?) is that counter-speech will emerge to rebut it and to fight it. In other words, more speech rather than less is the remedy.

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December 4, 2013 at 9:16 am

Certiorari Granted in Plumhoff v. Rickard: Excessive Force, High-Speed Police Pursuits and Scott v. Harris

Plumhoff v. Rickard: Certiorari Granted

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Plumhoff v. Rickard, No. 12-1117 (2014), an unpublished decision in Estate of Allen v. City of West Memphis, 509 Fed. App’x 388 (6th Cir. 2012).

Here are the questions presented:

“1. Whether the Sixth Circuit wrongly denied qualified immunity to Petitioners by analyzing whether the force used in 2004 was distinguishable from factually similar force ruled permissible three years later in Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007). Stated otherwise, the question presented is whether, for qualified immunity purposes, the Sixth Circuit erred in analyzing whether the force was supported by subsequent case decisions as opposed to prohibited by clearly established law at the time the force was used.”
“2.  Whether the Sixth Circuit erred in denying qualified immunity by finding the use of force was not reasonable as a matter of law when, under Respondent’s own facts, the suspect led police officers on a high-speed pursuit that began in Arkansas and ended in Tennessee, the suspect weaved through traffic on an interstate at a high rate of speed and made contact with the police vehicles twice, and the suspect used his vehicle in a final attempt to escape after he was surrounded by police officers, nearly hitting at least one police officer in the process.”

The Background: Scott v. Harris

In 2007, the Supreme Court held in Scott v. Harris that “a law enforcement official can, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, attempt to stop a fleeing motorist from continuing his public-endangering flight by ramming the motorist’s car from behind” even though the officer’s actions “place [the] fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.” In the case before it, the Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit which had affirmed the district court’s denial of officer’s qualifed immunity summary judgment motion. A videotape of the chase made abundantly clear, said the Court, that no jury could find that what the officer did— ramming the plaintiff motorist’s car and thereby seizing it — was objectively unreasonable.

In the course of its opinion the Supreme Court explained the relationship among Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)(deadly force), Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)(excessive force in general) and the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement. It noted that “Graham did not establish a magical on/off switch that triggers rigid preconditions whenever an officer’s actions constitute ‘deadly force.’ Garner was simply an application of the Fourth Amendment’s ‘reasonableness’ test in a particular type of situation.”

Justices Ginsburg and Breyer concurred, while Justice Stevens dissented, arguing that the Court had usurped the jury’s function.

Comments

1. The Supreme Court will almost certainly reverse the Sixth Circuit and declare that the latter’s approach in this and similar cases is fundamentally inconsistent with Scott.

2. Note that Scott must be sharply distinguished from those high speed police pursuit cases in which there is no seizure, with the result that the substantive due process “purpose to do harm” standard governs, and not Fourth Amendment reasonableness standards. County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998).

More on the Fourth Amendment and excessive force can be found at sections 3:17-3:23 in  Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2013)(West Group).

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November 20, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Recent Statutes of Limitation Accrual Decisions in the Circuits

I previously set out some of the basics on statutes of limitation and section 1983 in my post of 10-27-11, A Section 1983 Primer (5): Statutes of Limitation.

What follows are three recent circuit court decisions dealing with accrual. Recall that the section 1983 accrual question is one of federal law.

For a comprehensive discussion of this technical subject, see NAHMOD, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 ch. 9 (4th ed. 2013)(CIVLIBLIT on Westlaw).

Fifth Circuit: Accrual and Knowledge of Parental Injury 

Where the mother of a thirteen year old arrestee sued law enforcement officers, alleging that they violated her parental due process rights when they interrogated him outside of her presence and over her objections and thereby obtained what turned out to be a false confession, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the claim, filed on March 20, 2009, was time barred under Mississippi’s general or residual personal injury three year limitations period. The court reasoned that the cause of action accrued on May 12, 2003, when the plaintiff immediately became aware of her separation from her son, at which time she believed that it was in his best interest not to answer questions without her. Edmonds v. Oktibbeha County, 675 F.3d 911, 916 (5th Cir. 2012), referring to MISS. CODE ANN. § 15-1-49 (2011).

Seventh Circuit: Knowledge of Medical Injury and Its Cause

According to the Seventh Circuit, “[t]he statute of limitations for a § 1983 deliberate indifference claim brought to redress a medical injury does not begin to run until the plaintiff knows of his injury and its cause.” In this case, plaintiff alleged in his October 2007 lawsuit that prison medical staff improperly delayed ordering a prostate biopsy for him until April 2005, and metastasized prostate cancer was discovered six months later. This delay occurred even though in 2000, when he entered the prison system, he had told the prison medical staff that he had prostate problems and needed to be tested within two to four years, and even though, in February 2004, a PSA test had disclosed highly elevated PSA. Reversing the district court, the Seventh Circuit found the Eighth Amendment claim timely: the plaintiff did not know of his injury in April 2005 when the defendants finally ordered a biopsy but only discovered the injury six months later when he found out he had cancer that might have been diagnosed and treated earlier. It was at that time that his cause of action accrued, and he filed suit shortly before the applicable Indiana two year limitations period expired. The Seventh Circuit emphasized that the plaintiff was suing for his actual physical injury and rejected argument that the limitations period began to run before plaintiff knew he had cancer. Devbrow v. Kalu, 705 F.3d 765 (7th Cir. 2013).

Ninth Circuit: Discrete Act Starting Limitations Period Anew

The plaintiff, a Muslim, sued prison officials on April 29, 2009, under § 1983, alleging that they violated his First Amendment rights when, in 2008, they denied his request for a conjugal visit with his second wife pursuant to a prison regulation that permanently prohibited him from having such visits. Complicating the accrual question—California’s two year personal injury limitations period applied–was the fact that he had previously been denied a conjugal visit with his first wife in 2002 under the same regulation. The defendants argued that the plaintiff had notice of the allegedly wrongful acts in 2002 when he was denied a conjugal visit under the regulation and that his § 1983 claim was therefore untimely. However, the Ninth Circuit rejected this argument and found that the denial of a conjugal visit in 2008 was an independent discrete act that began the running of the two year limitations period all over again. Thus, his § 1983 claim was timely. Pouncil v. Tilton, 704 F.3d 568 (9th Cir. 2012). The plaintiff also brought a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act which was governed by a federal four year limitations period.

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November 11, 2013 at 1:00 pm