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Fifth Circuit Decides Two Civil Rights Cases on Qualified Immunity Grounds

Today, the Fifth Circuit release two new opinions in civil rights cases.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs in these cases, in both the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of the defendants’ motions for summary judgment and held that the defendants were entitled to have the case dismissed under the doctrine of qualified immunity.  The doctrine of qualified immunity “shields government officials from civil damages liability unless the official violates a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.”  As these cases demonstrate, the doctrine can provide powerful protection against civil rights claims.

In the first case, Wigginton v. Jones, a university professor filed suit after he was denied tenure at the Mississippi state college where he taught.  He claimed that the tenure process had proceeded in an arbitrary and capricious fashion, and a jury had agreed and awarded him $200,000 in back pay and mental and emotional damages after a trial.  Given the jury award, there was obviously something disturbing about the professor had been treated.  However, the defendants appealed the verdict, and the Fifth Circuit held that the professor-plaintiff had not had a clearly established property interest in his job such that he could claim his rights had been violated.  The Circuit noted that the due process clause of the US Constitution protects life, liberty, and property, but it is state law that defines whether someone has a property interest in some aspect of their employment that must be protected.  In this case, the Court held that it was not clearly established that Mississippi law provided the professor a property interest in a fair tenure review process.  Therefore, the defendant officials were entitled to qualified immunity and the jury verdict had to be reversed.

In the second case, Baldwin v. Dorsey, the plaintiff had been found incoherent in her car, stopped at a red light.  EMS and the police were called.  Ultimately, the defendant officer had arrested the plaintiff and taken her to the police station to conduct a blood test to see if she was intoxicated.  En route, the plaintiff claimed to have told the officer she was feeling suicidal and asked to be taken to the hospital.  The defendant officer declined to do that, and instead kept the plaintiff monitored and incapacitated from harming herself for approximately three hours by handcuffing her to a bench at the station.  The woman was eventually taken for a psychiatric evaluation.  She later sued, claiming the three hour delay in bringing her to the hospital had traumatized her.  Her claim was premised on the well-established law that an officer cannot be “deliberately indifferent” to a known risk of harm to a person who is in their custody.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Fifth Circuit granted qualified immunity for the officer.  The Court found that because the plaintiff had been monitored and handcuffed during the three hour period, she did not actually face a risk of suicide during that period.  The Court also found that, under the circumstances presented in this case, it was not clearly established that the officer needed to take the defendant to the hospital immediately.  The Court distinguished another recent Fifth Circuit case which had denied qualified immunity where a teenager in a drug-induced psychotic state had repeatedly slammed his head into the back window of a police cruiser.  Although it was clear in that prior case the officers should have taken the teenager for medical treatment, the same could not be said for plaintiff Baldwin.