Tolan v. Cotton: Protecting the Summary Judgment Standard or Improper Interference in “Factbound” Qualified Immunity Cases?


By: Peter Munk
On May 5, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a per curium opinion in Tolan v. Cotton in which it vacated the Fifth Circuit’s grant of summary judgment to a police officer on the basis of qualified immunity.  Tolan  is noteworthy for two reasons.  First, it marks the first time in 10 years that the Court has ruled against a police officer in a qualified immunity case.  Second, the Court’s decision to vacate and remand was based on the lower courts’ “clear misapprehension of summary judgment standards.”  In other words, the Court scrutinized the factual record and determined that the lower courts had failed to construe facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.  Justice Samuel Alito (joined by Justice Antonin Scalia) concurred in the judgment, but noted that error correction of this nature by the Court would “very substantially alter the Court’s practice.”
Tolan suggests that the Court is willing to peer behind the factual curtain of tough qualified immunity cases.  The Court’s ruling may cause lower courts to think twice before granting summary judgment in difficult qualified immunity cases, knowing that their factual findings will be closely scrutinized on appeal.