by Gregory Williams, Esq. | Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (hereinafter, "Section 1983"), may a state official sued in their individual capacity be entitled to qualified immunity? Here’s my point of view (NOTE: please read our DISCLAIMER before proceeding).
A state official sued in his or her individual capacity may be entitled to qualified immunity, unless the official violated a constitutional right of the plaintiff and that right was "clearly established." Nelson v. Corr. Med. Servs., 583 F.3d 522, 528 (8th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Qualified immunity is an entitlement not to stand trial, that is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability. See Rudebusch v. Hughes, 313 F.3d 506, 514 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985) (emphasis in original)) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). As a consequence, qualified immunity safeguards all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Rudebusch v. Hughes, 313 at 514 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). This standard allows ample room for reasonable error on the part of the official. Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). It encompasses both mistakes of fact and mistakes of law. Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
THE TWO-STEP PROCESS
Analysis of a Section 1983 qualified immunity issue involving an individual capacity state official typically involves a two-step process. The first step requires the following question be answered: "Taken in the light most favorable to the the party asserting injury, do the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right?" Rudebusch v. Hughes, 313 F.3d 506, 514 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001)) (emphasis added).
Only after determining whether the constitutional right was violated does the court proceed to the second step of the two-part inquiry as follows: whether the law was so clearly established that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right? See id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Affirmative answers at both steps of the inquiry will typically prevent the state official from claiming qualified immunity.
Ultimately, the concern of the immunity inquiry is to acknowledge that reasonable mistakes can be made as to the legal constraints on particular official conduct. Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). And, thus, the qualified immunity analysis occurs in the specific context of the situation confronted by the official. See id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
If you would like to learn more, then consider contacting an experienced Washington State Employment Discrimination Attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. Please note: the information contained in this article is not offered as legal advice and will not form an attorney-client relationship with either this author or Williams Law Group, PS; please see our DISCLAIMER.