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FMG Law Blog Line

Qualified Immunity and The First Amendment – Why Plaintiffs Continue To Struggle Proving “Clearly Established Case Law”

Posted on: October 3rd, 2017

By: Bradley T. Adler and Will Collins

The recent Eleventh Circuit decision Gaines v. Wardynski, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18276, No. 16-15583 (11th Cir. Sept. 21, 2017), is a good reminder of the importance and value of qualified immunity as a defense to litigation in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (federal appeals court covering Georgia, Florida and Alabama).  In Gaines, a school teacher, Lynda Gaines, filed a Section 1983 claim against the school superintendent, Dr. Casey Wardynski, alleging violations of her First Amendment right of freedom of speech and freedom of association.  After Gaines filed suit and before discovery commenced, Dr. Wardysnki filed a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity.  The district court denied the motion and Dr. Wardysnki appealed.

In short, Gaines’ claim arose out of a dispute in May of 2013 when Gaines’ father, a county commissioner, “blasted” the Hunstville City Board of Education and Dr. Wardynski for recent actions they were taking.  Gaines, who was a teacher in the Huntsville school system at the time, alleged that, after the article was published, she was denied a promotion to one of three open teaching positions in retaliation for her father’s comments. While the district court denied Dr. Wardynski’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, the Eleventh Circuit reversed.  Through its decision, the Eleventh Circuit reminded practitioners that, in order for a constitutional right to be clearly established by law under the doctrine of qualified immunity, the clearly established law must be specifically particularized to the facts of the case. The Eleventh Circuit concluded in Gaines that the case law that the district court and Gaines cited “was not particularized to the facts of the case, but rather merely set out First Amendment principals at a high level of generality.”  As a result, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that the defendants had not violated a clearly established constitutional right.

As a part of its decision, the court emphasized that whether a right is clearly established turns on whether the governmental official had fair warning.  According to the court, there are three methods for a plaintiff to show fair warning: (1) citing a materially similar case already decided; (2) pointing to a broader clearly established principle that should control the novel facts of the situation; and (3) where the conduct of a situation so obviously violates the constitution, prior case law is unnecessary.

Here, the court quickly moved past the second and third methods, which are rare and generally involve cases of egregious conduct. Instead, this decision turned on whether there was a materially similar case already decided. The Eleventh Circuit stressed that the “materially similar case” analysis is not a general inquiry, but rather must (1) be particularized to the facts; (2) be particularized to the context; and (3) give notice to the governmental official.  As a part of its analysis, the Eleventh Circuit stopped short of saying that the facts must be directly on point, but emphasized the facts must be close enough to put the “question beyond debate” and must come from a previously-issued decision of the United States Supreme Court, the governing federal court of appeals, or the applicable state supreme court.

In the end, the Gaines decision emphasized just how difficult it is for a plaintiff to overcome qualified immunity because of the level of particularity required for a case to be materially similar in facts and context.  As a result, when government officials are facing suits for constitutional violations, it is critical for them to remember to assess the potential use of a qualified immunity defense at the outset of the case.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Bradley Adler at [email protected] or Will Collins at [email protected].

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