Two Cases Result in Opposite Outcomes for Massachusetts Municipal Employees Seeking Immunity
Police officer not entitled to immunity under federal law, but school district shielded from suit under state statute.
Two cases on municipal immunity were issued this month, one from a federal court and the other from a state court. They illustrate the differences in immunity analysis under federal and state law, but in the end the distinction between them turns on whether the defendant is alleged to have taken affirmative steps that directly caused the harm suffered by the plaintiff.
The decision from the Massachusetts Federal District Court determined that a Randolph police officer is not entitled to immunity in a case alleging excessive force. The Massachusetts Appeals Court found that the Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School District is immune from a tort suit relating to serious injuries suffered by a member of its varsity field hockey team.
On May 14th, the federal court denied summary judgment to a Randolph police officer in a § 1983 action in which the plaintiff alleges that the officer ordered his police dog to bite the plaintiff after the plaintiff had already surrendered to police. The factual accounts of the night in question offered by the plaintiff and by the police differ markedly. Because the court was considering a motion for summary judgment, it was required to resolve all factual disputes and indulge all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff, as the non-moving party, and therefore ruled based on the evidence most favorable to the plaintiff.
In April 2013, Randolph police received calls reporting an attempted burglary. Officers responded to the house, and viewed home security camera footage showing an African-American man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and white sneakers apparently attempting to break into the house. The officers searched the area, and one officer saw a man allegedly matching this description, who later was identified as the plaintiff, running into the backyard of a home. The defendant police officer and his German Shepard police dog, Rony, approached the plaintiff in the yard. The plaintiff testified that he was ordered to get down on the ground, and after first refusing, he complied as the police dog got closer. The plaintiff testified that he surrendered, lay prostrate on the ground, and asked the officer not to let the dog bite him. The plaintiff asserts that the officer nonetheless ordered the dog to maul the back of his left leg as he lay on the ground.
The officer, by contrast, testified that the police dog led him to the plaintiff’s hiding place in the yard, and that when the plaintiff was discovered he punched and kicked the dog in an attempt to escape. It was at that point the officer testifies he ordered the dog to bite the plaintiff. The plaintiff was taken into custody and tried for burglary, breaking and entering, resisting arrest, and mistreating or interfering with a police dog. He was convicted of burglary and breaking and entering, but was acquitted of resisting arrest and mistreating or interfering with a police dog.
The plaintiff brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a cause of action to plaintiffs whose constitutional rights have allegedly been violated by state or local government employees. Government employees in § 1983 cases are entitled to “qualified immunity,” meaning that they can only be held liable if their conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right. Put another way, only an obvious constitutional violation will result in § 1983 liability. A case alleging excessive force by a police officer adds an additional layer of analysis: an officer’s use of force is unconstitutional only if it is objectively unreasonable under the circumstances, viewed from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.
The court concluded at summary judgment that the police officer in this case is not entitled to qualified immunity. The court held that a reasonable jury could find that events unfolded as the plaintiff asserts, especially in light of his acquittal for resisting arrest and mistreating or interfering with a police dog. The court further held that if the officer had in fact ordered the dog to bite the plaintiff as he lay prostrate on the ground after surrendering, it would amount to a violation of a clearly-established constitutional right. The court determined that a reasonable officer under the circumstances would understand that such a use of force would be unreasonable, and therefore constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The government employees in the state case fared better under a state statute granting municipal immunity. The case arose out of serious injuries to a student in the Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School District who was a member of the varsity field hockey team. During a practice, the student suffered a concussion and other injuries when she was accidentally hit in the face by a teammate’s field hockey stick. The student and her family sued the District, claiming that school personnel were negligent: 1) in failing to properly train and supervise the coaches and athletes involved; 2) in failing to seek adequate medical attention at the time of the injuries; and 3) in failing to implement an academic reentry plan for the student following the injury.
The Appeals Court affirmed an order granting the District’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that the District is entitled to immunity from suit under a complex provision of the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, codified at G.L. c. 258, § 10(j). The Act waives the government’s sovereign immunity to tort liability in certain respects, but contains several exceptions carving out circumstances in which governmental immunity still applies, including the exception at issue in this case.
Section 10(j) of the Act bars “any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer.” The court noted that subsequent case law has added an additional gloss on this section by requiring that an affirmative act of the public employer —rather than a failure to act—“originally cause” the condition underlying the tort claim. Claims originating from a public defendant’s failure to act, or claims involving affirmative acts by the public defendant that are too remote to be the original cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, are barred by § 10(j).
In the student’s case, the court determined that § 10(j) bars a negligence suit against the District. The student argued that the field hockey coach committed an affirmative act by allowing an untrained assistant coach to supervise the drill during which the student was injured, and that this affirmative act caused her injury. The court, however, held that it was instead an omission that caused the allegedly dangerous condition: that is, the failure of the coach to properly train and supervise the assistant coach and other players. The court also noted that even if this omission could be described as an affirmative act, it was too remote from the immediate cause of injury (i.e. the other player’s action in allegedly negligently swinging her field hockey stick) to allow for liability. As the court stated, the Act precludes any attempt to hold defendants liable for the failure to ensure the plaintiff’s safety, when the injury is directly caused by a third person.
The court held that the student’s other claims, regarding the District’s failure to seek adequate medical attention or develop an academic reentry plan, are also barred by § 10(j), because they seek to hold the District liable for failing to diminish the harmful consequences of the allegedly tortious conduct of a third party.
Finally, the court considered whether the student’s claims are saved by § 10(j)(2), an exception to the exception that allows liability for “any claim based upon the intervention of a public employee which causes injury to the victim or places the victim in a worse position than [s]he was before the intervention.” The court held that the term “intervention,” as used in § 10(j)(2), applies only to affirmative acts. Because the “interventions” asserted by the student—namely the alleged failure of the coach to seek adequate medical attention and the alleged failure of the school to develop a reentry plan—were omissions, and not affirmative acts, the exception in § 10(j)(2) did not save the student’s claims.
The court’s bright-line distinction between affirmative acts and omissions provides a generous amount of protection to public entities. Unless a plaintiff can clearly show that his or her injury is “originally caused” by an affirmative action on the part of a public employee, governmental immunity will probably bar a tort claim. Further, although the court did not closely analyze the question of how direct a cause must be in order to qualify as “originally causing” an injury, the court’s dicta stating that the causation was not sufficient in this case even if the coach’s conduct were treated as an affirmative act suggests that there must be a clear and direct link between a public entity’s action and the harm suffered.
The court’s full decision is available here.
From these two cases, it may appear that immunity under state law is more robust than immunity under federal law. After all, the federal court denied the police officer immunity after discovery was conducted and evidence was introduced, finding that a full trial was necessary to determine if a constitutional violation occurred. The state court, by contrast, dismissed the plaintiffs’ case based purely on the allegations in the complaint, and despite accepting all of those allegations as true. But federal immunity provides significant protection to government employees: even a government employee who in fact violates a plaintiff’s constitutional rights may be entitled to immunity under federal law if the right was not clearly established, meaning that the employee should have been on notice at the time that his or her conduct violated the constitution.
The real distinction between these cases lies not in the law being applied, but in the affirmative or intentional nature of the actions alleged on the part of the defendants. The District is immune from suit because it was accused of omissions or failures to act, rather than affirmative actions that directly caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The police officer, on the other hand, is not immune from suit because he allegedly directly caused the plaintiff’s injury through intentional and affirmative acts. This is further illustrated by the fact that the plaintiff in the federal case had actually originally sued two different police officers: the one who allegedly ordered the dog to bite, and the one who first spotted the plaintiff in the yard and alerted the other officers to the plaintiff’s location. The court granted immunity to the second officer with almost no discussion. Because the evidence did not suggest that the second officer directly injured the plaintiff, he was dismissed from the suit.
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