January 23, 2009, by
On January 21, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision affecting public officials and their assertion of the "qualified immunity" defense to 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 available to public officials which serves to shield them from liability typically in cases of constitutional law. It is usually asserted in defense of a peace officer's 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 yes, then is the right "clearly established?" This analysis, the "Saucier two-step," was the source of much criticism because it, among other things, forced courts to directly address constitutional questions, which is contrary to established jurisprudence to avoid deciding questions with constitutional import, if there exists any other grounds upon which a case could be decided.
Pearson addressed this criticism, and in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that trial and district courts can skip this first question and instead go straight to the second question in the Saucier two-step analysis. In other words, the Saucier analysis is not mandatory.
This now allows the district and trial courts much more discretion and latitude in deciding whether an official should be entitled to qualified immunity. Rather than becoming mired in constitutional debate, courts may now simply turn to the question of whether the official's conduct was reasonable, or violative of clearly established law. This bodes well for being able to assert qualified immunity both sooner in the life cycle of litigation, and more often, including cases where under the Saucier test, the constitutional issues may have made prevailing on qualified immunity problematic.