Legal Updates for Government Entities Covering March and April 2014

by Ryley Carlock & Applewhite

Arizona Court of Appeals

Immunity under A.R.S. § 12-820.05

Tucson Unified School District v. Gallagher, --P.3d--, 2014 WL949114 (March 11, 2014)

The Gallaghers sued TUSD and a TUSD school employee, Michael Corum, alleging that Corum sexually abused and/or exploited their developmentally challenged daughter at a TUSD school. The Gallaghers claimed that TUSD was vicariously liable for Corum’s conduct and was negligent in hiring and supervising Corum. The Gallaghers alleged that if TUSD had properly investigated Corum’s employment history they would have discovered that a prior employer recommended that he not be employed in a position that involved disabled children. TUSD filed for summary judgment, arguing that it was immune under A.R.S. § 12-820.05 because Corum had committed a felony and it had no actual knowledge of Corum’s purported propensity for such conduct. The trial court denied summary judgment, concluding that TUSD should have known of the circumstances of Corum’s previous conduct and thus the immunity statute did not apply. TUSD appealed.

A.R.S. § 12-820.05(B) provides that a public entity is not liable for losses that arise out of and are directly attributable to a public employee’s act or omission that is determined by a court to be a felony, unless the public entity knew of the public employee’s propensity for that action. The Court of Appeals held that immunity under A.R.S. § 12-820.05(B) applies unless the entity has actual, not constructive, knowledge. The Court based its decision on the plain language of the statute. When the legislature intends a standard of actual or constructive knowledge, it expressly states so. The use of the word “knew” in the immunity statute unambiguously shows the legislature’s intent to require actual knowledge rather than constructive knowledge. A.R.S. § 12-820.05(B) means exactly what it says—that immunity applies unless the public entity actually knew of the “employee’s propensity.”

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

Qualified immunity for warrantless entry

Sheehan v. City and County of San Francisco, 743 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir. 2014)

Sheehan suffered from a mental illness and was residing in a group home.  Her assigned social worker was concerned about her deteriorating condition, deemed her gravely disabled, and called the police to transport her to a mental health facility for a 72-hour involuntary commitment. When officers Reynolds and Holder arrived at the home, they entered Sheehan’s room, without a warrant, to confirm her mental condition and take her into custody. Sheehan reacted violently, grabbed a knife, threatened to kill the officers, and told them that she did not wish to be detained in a mental health facility. The officers retreated to the hallway for their safety and called for backup. But rather than waiting for backup to arrive, the officers drew their weapons and forced their way back into Sheehan’s room. Sheehan again threatened them with a knife. The officers shot her six times. Sheehan survived and filed a § 1983 action, claiming the officers’ entry into her room violated the Fourth Amendment and they used excessive force. The district court found the officers were entitled to qualified immunity and granted summary judgment. Sheehan appealed.

Generally, a warrantless search or seizure in a person’s home is presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. But there are exceptions to the warrant requirement, including the emergency aid exception. The emergency aid exception applies when, under the totality of the circumstances, (1) law enforcement had an objectively reasonable basis for concluding that there was an immediate need to protect others or themselves from serious harm, and (2) the search’s scope and manner were reasonable to meet the need. Under this exception, the Ninth Circuit held that the officers’ first entry into Sheehan’s room did not violate the Fourth Amendment because they had an objectively reasonable basis for concluding that there was an urgent need to protect Sheehan from serious harm. The officers knew she was off of her medication, was not taking care of herself, had threatened her social worker, and was gravely disabled and in need of involuntary hospitalization.  Indeed, the court noted that the officers reasonably took a cautious approach to the situation and that “erring on the side of caution is exactly what we expect of conscientious police officers.”  And they carried out the search in a reasonable manner. They knocked and announced and used a pass key to gain entry. They did not draw their weapons and had no reason to believe that their entry would trigger a violent confrontation.

The court found that the emergency aid exception also justified the second warrantless entry into Sheehan’s room. The officers continued to have an objectively reasonable basis for concluding that there was an urgent need to protect Sheehan from serious harm. And because the two entries were part of a single, continuous search or seizure, the officers were not required to separately justify the continuing emergency with respect to the second entry. But the court found that fact issues as to whether the entry was conducted in a reasonable manner precluded summary judgment, and noted that Ninth Circuit case law would put any reasonable, competent officer on notice that it is unreasonable to forcibly enter the home of an armed, mentally ill subject who is acting irrationally and threatening anyone who entered, when there was no objective need for immediate entry.

Lack of resources defense/ jury instruction in § 1983 cases

Peralta v. Dillard, 744 F.3d 1076 (9th Cir. 2014)

Peralta, a prison inmate, sued a prison dentist claiming deliberate indifference under the Eighth Amendment. At trial, the court instructed the jury that “whether a dentist or doctor met his duties to Peralta under the Eighth Amendment must be considered in the context of the personnel, financial, and other resources available to him or her or which he or she could reasonably obtain.” Peralta challenged this jury instruction on appeal.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court has not said whether juries and judges may consider a lack of resources as a defense in § 1983 cases. But the Supreme Court has held that prison officials are not deliberately indifferent to a prisoner’s medical needs unless they act wantonly, and whether an official’s conduct can be characterized as wanton depends on the constraints facing him. See Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 303 (1991). The Court has also held that even if an official knows of a substantial risk, he’s not liable if he responded reasonably. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 844 (1994). This framework makes clear that what is reasonable depends on the circumstances that constrain what actions an official can take.

Several constraints impacted and delayed provision of care for Peralta. Security concerns dictate that only one prisoner at a time can be in the exam room, and the prisoner cannot be left alone in the room because dental tools can be used as weapons. During lockdown, only emergency cases can be seen. Dentists can’t accept prisoners’ complaints at face value, as inmates often try to jump the line by exaggerating symptoms.

The Ninth Circuit noted that lack of resources is not a proper defense to a claim for prospective relief. But a claim for damages is different. Damages provide redress for something an official could have done but did not. So with respect to a claim for damages, the nature of the available resources is highly relevant to show the scope of choices that the individual defendant had. A prison medical official who fails to provide needed treatment because he lacks the necessary resources can hardly be said to have intended to punish the inmate. The court held that the challenged jury instruction properly advised the jury to consider the resources the dentist had available in determining whether he was deliberately indifferent.

United States Supreme Court

Scope of Fourth Amendment consent to search

Fernandez v. California, 132 S.Ct. 1126 (2014)

Officers responding to an assault call saw a man running through an alley and into a building.  A minute or two later, they heard sounds of screaming and fighting coming from the building. They knocked on the apartment unit from which the screams were coming. A crying woman, Rojas, answered the door. Her face was red, she had a large bump on her nose, and fresh blood was on her shirt and hand. Officers asked her to step outside so they could do a protective sweep of the apartment.  The plaintiff, Fernandez, stepped forward and told the officers that they could not enter. Believing that Fernandez had assaulted Rojas, the officer removed him from the apartment and arrested him. About an hour later, a detective returned to the apartment and requested and received oral consent from Rojas to search the premises. Police found evidence incriminating Fernandez, which Fernandez moved to suppress in his criminal case. Fernandez argued that the search was unconstitutional because his denial of consent trumped the later consent Rojas gave. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the denial, and the California Supreme Court denied the petition for review. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Consent searches are recognized as an exception to the requirement for a search warrant. In 1974, the Supreme Court held that police officers may search jointly occupied premises if one of the occupants consents. See United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974).  Years later, the Court recognized a narrow exception to this rule, holding that the consent of one occupant is insufficient when another occupant is present and objects to the search. Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006). Here, the Court declined to expand the current rule. They rejected Rodriguez’s argument that his objection to the search should have barred a later search since he was absent from the premises only because the police arrested and removed him.  The Court held that an occupant who is absent due to a lawful detention or arrest stands in the same shoes as an occupant who is absent for any other reason. The Court also rejected the idea that once an occupant objects to a search, the objection remains effective until withdrawn.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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