Saturday, September 22, 2007

Terminological inexactitude and qualified immunity

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Judge Shedd in the case of Henry v. Purnell decided to hold forth on a number of the oddities of the law of qualified immunity, in the Fourth Circuit.

The Supreme Court requires the two-parts of the qualified immunity to be addressed in a particular sequence, for reasons that are not entirely satisfactory. The initial inquiry is whether the plaintiff has stated or proven sufficient facts to show a constitutional violation - in other words, does the plaintiff have a case on the merits? If the trial court decides this first inquiry against the plaintiff, is it a decision based on qualified immunity, or not? And, does it matter?

Judge Shedd notes:

"When resolving cases on the first Saucier question, courts sometimes state that the absence of a constitutional violation entitles the defendant to qualified immunity. At least one circuit court has specifically rejected this approach, noting that a defendant in that instance prevails not because of qualified immunity but, instead, because the plaintiff "did not prove an essential element of the § 1983 claim." Ambrose v. Young, 474 F.3d 1070, 1077 n.3 (8th Cir. 2007). In several recent opinions, the Supreme Court appears to have segregated the initial Saucier inquiry of whether a constitutional violation occurred from the second inquiry of whether the defendant is entitled to qualified immunity. See, e.g., Morse v. Frederick, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S. Ct. 2618, 2624 & n.1 (2007) (expressly declining to decide the case on qualified immunity grounds based on the conclusion that no constitutional violation occurred); Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 563 (2004) ("Having concluded that a constitutional violation occurred, we turn to the question whether petitioner is entitled to qualified immunity despite that violation."); Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004) (expressing "no view as to the correctness of the Court of Appeals’ decision on the constitutional question" because, in any event, "the Court of Appeals was wrong on the issue of qualified immunity"); see also id. at 601 (Breyer, J., concurring) (noting that Saucier "requires lower courts to decide (1) the constitutional question prior to deciding (2) the qualified immunity question")."

Of course, the characterization makes some practical difference when the defendant's motion for summary judgment is denied, because an ordinary denial of summary judgment on the merits is not immediately appealable, but denial of a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity is immediately appealable.

The second point is how does the burden of proof apply to a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. This opinion, for the first time that I can recall, undertakes a thorough survey of the language from the Fourth Circuit precedents on this point, which are contradictory and inconsistent with the explanations from some other circuits. Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense, that the defendant must raise, but the burden of proving the claim on the merits is always on the plaintiff.

Judge Shedd explained:

"The plaintiff bears the burden of proof on the first question — i.e., whether a constitutional violation occurred."

He goes on to say:

"The defendant bears the burden of proof on the second question — i.e., entitlement to qualified immunity."

In making this statement, the judge noted that other circuits and some of the Fourth Circuits take the opposite view. I'm not sure that even makes sense to say the defendant has the burden of proof on what is essentially a legal question - was the constitutional right violated by the defendant clearly established?

No comments: