Tuesday, June 10, 2014

SCOTUS: Order Denying Summary Judgment is Immediately Appealable as of Right Where Motion is Based on Qualified Immunity Claim

By Don R. Sampen
Partner, Clausen Miller P.C.

In Plumhoff v. Rickard, No. 12-1117 (U.S. May 27, 2014), the United States Supreme Court applied 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and the collateral order doctrine to allow an interlocutory appeal, as of right, of an order denying summary judgment, where the summary judgment motion was based on the defendants’ claim of qualified immunity. Justice Samuel A. Alito wrote the Court’s opinion joined in by six justices, and joined in part by two additional justices.

The case arose from a police officer’s stop of a vehicle driven by Donald Rickard for a traffic violation. Rather than comply with the officer’s request to see his driver’s license, Rickard sped away, resulting in a high-speed chase involving several officers. When stopped again and nearly cornered by the officers, Rickard tried to flee again, at which time the officers fired a total of 15 shots. Rickard’s car crashed into a building and both Rickard and his passenger were killed from a combination of gunshot wounds and crash injuries. Plumhoff, No. 12-1117, slip op. at 3. 

Rickard’s daughter brought a civil rights action against the police officers and city officials in Memphis, where the incident occurred. She alleged the use of excessive force and violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The officers moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which motion was denied. The officers appealed, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari. Id. at 4.-5

Immunity Ruling as Collateral Order

Justice Alito’s opinion first addressed the Court’s jurisdiction. He noted that denials of motions for summary judgment were not generally considered final orders under § 1291, and therefore, were not immediately appealable. An exception exists, however, where the motion is based on a claim of qualified immunity. Importantly, Alito explained that qualified immunity is immunity from suit and not a mere defense to liability. Id. at 5.

As such, said Alito, pretrial orders denying qualified immunity generally fell within the collateral order doctrine. They did so because the immunity issue is separate from the merits of the action. The issue also could not be effectively reviewed on appeal from a final judgment, because by that time the immunity from standing trial would have been irretrievably lost. Id.

Fact v. Legal Determinations

Alito distinguished the instant case from Johnson v. Jones, 515 U.S. 304 (1995), relied on by the respondent, Rickard’s daughter. In that case, defendant police officers moved for summary judgment claiming that they were not present at the time of an alleged beating of the plaintiff. The district court denied the motion and the officers appealed, claiming that the district court had not correctly analyzed the evidence. Id. at 307-08.

The Johnson Court held that the denial order was not immediately appealable because it merely decided a question of evidence sufficiency, i.e., which facts the defendants may or may not have been able to prove at trial. The Court further observed that such a question is closely related to other determinations that a trial court may be required to make at later stages of the case, and was within the realm of the trial court’s fact-finding expertise. Id. at 313-16.

By contrast, Alito noted that the officers in this case did not claim that they were not responsible for the shooting. Rather, they took the position that their conduct did not violate the Fourth Amendment and, in any event, did not violate clearly established law. Alito found that these issues were legal in nature and the core responsibility of appellate courts. He therefore found that the Sixth Circuit properly exercised jurisdiction. Plumhoff, No. 12-1117, slip op. at 6-7.

Merits of Controversy

On the merits, Alito went on to find that, in light of the danger a high-speed car chase presents to innocent bystanders, the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment by shooting at Rickard to prevent him from resuming the chase. Id. at 9. Nor did the officers violate the Fourth Amendment by firing 15 shots even in the presence of Rickard’s passenger. Id. at 11. As to the passenger, Alito further commented that Fourth Amendment rights are personal, and the passenger’s presence could not enhance Rickard’s rights. Id. at 11-12.

Finally, in the alternative, Alito found that even if the officers had violated the Fourth Amendment, the violation was not so “clearly established” at the time the incident as to destroy the officers’ right to qualified immunity. Id. at 12-14.

The Supreme Court therefore reversed the decision of the Sixth Circuit.
Recommended Citation: Don R. Sampen, SCOTUS: Order Denying Summary Judgment is Immediately Appealable as of Right Where Motion is Based on Qualified Immunity Claim, The Brief, (June 10, 2014), http://applawyers-thebrief.blogspot.com/2014/06/scotus-order-denying-summary-judgment.html.

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