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High Court Makes It Easier to Assert Qualified Immunity for Public Officials

The U.S. Supreme Court’s January 21 decision in Pearson v. Callahan will affect public officials’ use of the “qualified immunity” defense in claims of civil rights violations (Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. ____ (2009) (Slip Op. 07-751, January 21, 2009).

Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense which can shield public officials from liability – typically in cases of constitutional law. It is commonly used to defend peace officers’ actions in civil rights suits.

Before Pearson, courts were required to analyze qualified immunity pursuant to the framework identified in Saucier v. Katz. (Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001)). According to Saucier, before a defendant would be entitled to qualified immunity, the trial court was required to answer two questions: (1) has the plaintiff alleged facts sufficient to support a constitutional violation?; and (2) if so, is the right “clearly established?” This analysis, known as the “Saucier two-step,” was the source of much criticism, partially because it forced courts to directly address constitutional questions. The established jurisprudence is to avoid resolving questions of constitutional import if the case can be decided upon any other grounds.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Pearson addresses this criticism, holding that trial and district courts can skip the first question in the Saucier two-step and proceed directly to examination of whether the qualified immunity is clearly established. The result is more discretion for district and trial courts to decide whether an official should be entitled to qualified immunity. Rather than becoming mired in constitutional debate, courts may now focus on whether the official’s conduct was reasonable or violative of clearly established law.

In short, by negating the Saucier two-step, which presented constitutional issues that made prevailing on qualified immunity problematic in some cases, Pearson may enable public officials to assert qualified immunity sooner in the life cycle of litigation and more often.