Qualified Immunity

Qualified Immunity

Qualified Immunity


What is Qualified Immunity?

Qualified immunity protects government officials from liability associated with the violation of a person’s federal constitutional rights.  The immunity is available for state and federal employees if they violated constitutional rights while acting in their position of government but did not violate an established law during their term(s).  Even if they actions now qualify as unlawful, they are protected by qualified immunity. 

Affirmative Defense

Once a defendant pleads with qualified immunity, circuits of court will require the plaintiff to show that rights or laws were clearly violated during the time of observed conduct.  Gardenhire v. Schubert, 205 F .3d 303, 311 (2000) shifts the burden to the plaintiff because the 6th Circuit Court stated the following:

 “The defendant bears the initial burden of coming forward with facts to suggest that he acted within the scope of his discretionary authority during the incident in question.  Thereafter, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish that the defendant’s conduct violated a right so clearly established that any official in his positions would have clearly understood that he was under an affirmative duty to refrain from such conduct.”

Time and Questions of Waiver

If immunity is used as a defense, case law suggests that a District Court needs to examine there was reasonable cause to use the immunity defense.  Additionally, the District Court also needs to examine if the plaintiff was affected by the delay in litigation.  In order to examine the case law, see Eddy v. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, 256 F .3d 204, 210 (2001). 

Extraordinary Circumstances

In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, the government official is granted immunity if their actions did not violate any established rights or laws that they should have known.  However, the idea of extraordinary circumstances was defined in Harlow as well. 

Even in some cases where the law is clearly established, the Court stated, “If the official pleading the defense claims extraordinary circumstances and can prove that he neither knew nor should have known of the relevant legal standard, the defense should be sustained.” 

Sustaining the defense of extraordinary circumstances is rare in an immunity case, but it has been sustained in some cases. 

The Heightened Pleading Requirement

A heightened pleading requirement occurs when the state of mind of the defendant is an important factor in the claim against constitutional violations.  Some courts require direct or material evidence in such a defense or pleading, but other courts can rely on direct or subjective evidence. 

An example of the heightened pleading requirement during a qualified immunity pleading is Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit.  The Fifth Circuit Court dismissed the complaint because the facts into police misconduct lacked great detail and failed to state any facts about police training.  The Supreme Court struck down the heightened pleading requirement though.  The Court ruled that it would not compare the municipality’s freedom from liability with immunity from the case because they were left to rely on summary judgments and claims without merit.

Source: https://www.njd.uscourts.gov/atty/3dCirqual06.pdf





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