Supreme Court Retreats From Mandatory Qualified Immunity Sequence

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Supreme Court Retreats From Mandatory Qualified Immunity Sequence: Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S.Ct. 808 (2009)

Qualified immunity shields government officials from suit and liability unless the official’s conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right. In Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001), the Supreme Court mandated a two-step approach for resolving government officials’ qualified immunity claims. First, a court must determine whether the facts alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right. If the first step is satisfied, a court must next decide whether the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s alleged misconduct. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court recently rejected the mandatory sequence of the two-step approach in the case of Pearson v. Callahan, allowing lower courts some discretion in deciding qualified immunity claims. 

In the eight years between the  Saucier and Pearson decisions, federal Courts of Appeal, District Courts, and the Supreme Court itself frequently criticized the rigidity of the mandatory two-step approach. For example, in many instances the required procedure resulted in the needless expenditure of substantial judicial resources. Critics of Sauciernoted that, where the facts of a particular case show that no constitutional right was clearly established, it is merely an academic exercise to determine whether such facts describe the violation of a constitutional right. While the first-step Saucier mandate was designed, in part, to further the development of constitutional precedent, in practice the fact intensive nature of determining each plaintiff’s constitutional claim did not often provide guidance for future cases.

Armed with “a considerable body of new experience of requiring adherence to [ Saucier’s] inflexible approach,” the Supreme Court held that the two-step process should not be rigidly followed. While the well-established sequence is often appropriate, courts should be free to conduct their qualified immunity analysis in whatever sequence they deem fit. The Pearson decision recognizes that judges “are in the best position to determine the order of decisionmaking” and aims to increase the efficiency of the judicial process.

Prior to the  Pearson decision, the First Circuit Court of Appeals separated the second step of the qualified immunity analysis into two sub-parts, thus analyzing qualified immunity under a three-step test. The first sub-part focused on the clarity of the law at the time of the alleged civil rights violation while the second sub-part focused on whether, based on the facts of the particular case, a reasonable defendant would have understood that his conduct violated the plaintiff’s civil rights. In the wake of the Pearson decision, the First Circuit abandoned its three-step test, deferring to the two-step inquiry articulated by the Supreme Court. Maldonado v. Fontanes, 568 F.3d 263, 268-269 (1st Cir. 2009).

Although considered seismic when first announced, the practical result of the Pearson decision will likely be more limited. The Supreme Court re-emphasized that qualified immunity is an immunity from suit and liability, and the purpose of that immunity will be lost if public officials are forced to engage in costly and time-consuming litigation. The reiteration and recognition of this principle should assist municipal defendants in continuing to press qualified immunity claims.