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Qualified Immunity Defense Has Its Limits: U.S. Supreme Court Rules Novel Facts Do Not Circumvent a Reasonable Person Standard

In its recent per curiam decision in Taylor v. Riojas, 592 U.S. ____, 208 L. Ed. 2d 164 (2020), the Supreme Court reversed a Fifth Circuit’s decision to grant qualified immunity to corrections officers who allegedly confined the plaintiff in unsanitary conditions for six days. This decision is a rare Supreme Court reversal of a decision to grant qualified immunity.

The Taylor plaintiff alleged horrific confinement conditions: his first cell had feces-covered walls, windows, and ceiling, as well as a water faucet packed with feces. His second cell was “frigidly cold,” contained a backed-up drain that overflowed with raw sewage, and he was forced to sleep naked in the sewage because he had no clothes and no bed.

Though the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the alleged conditions violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, it determined that the prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity because, in its view, the unconstitutionality of confining prisoners to cells “teeming with human waste” for “six days” was not clearly established. Taylor v. Stevens, 946 F.3d 211, 222 (5th Cir. 2019).

The Supreme Court reversed and concluded that “any reasonable officer [confronted with the egregious facts] should have realized that [the] conditions of confinement offended the Constitution.” 208 L. Ed. 2d at 165. In so concluding, the Court drew upon its decision in Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 741 (2002), where it explained, “a general constitutional rule already identified in the decisional law may apply with obvious clarity to the specific conduct in question.”

Like Taylor, Hope concerned prison officials’ egregious conduct. In response to an inmate’s refusal to work at an outdoor site, corrections officers chained the inmate to a hitching post, where he remained shirtless in the hot sun, with little water and no restroom breaks for seven hours. See Hope, 536 U.S. at 734-35. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the grant of qualified immunity even though it determined that the use of a hitching post for punishment violated the Eighth Amendment. It upheld the lower court’s qualified immunity decision because “the federal law by which the government official’s conduct should be evaluated must be preexisting, obvious and mandatory.” Hope, 240 F.3d 975, 981 (5th Cir. 2001). Put differently, the pre-existing case law must be “materially similar.” Id.     

In its reversal of the Eleventh Circuit, the Supreme Court emphasized that “officials can still be on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual circumstances;” previous cases need not be “fundamentally” or “materially” similar to provide fair warning of the at-issue conduct’s unconstitutionality. Hope, 536 U.S. at 741. The Court pointed to controlling appellate decisions that deemed several forms of corporal punishment unconstitutional, including handcuffing inmates to fences for extended periods of time and forcing inmates to stand for long periods. Id. at 742-44. In light of the precedent, the Court determined that “a reasonable person would have known” that chaining an inmate to a hitching post for an extended period of time in the hot sun with little water and no bathroom breaks was unconstitutional. Id. at 745-46.

Impact of the Supreme Court’s Taylor Decision

Though the Supreme Court’s Taylor decision is a rare reversal of a lower court’s grant of qualified immunity, the decision re-emphasizes the Court’s reasoning in Hope, namely that precedent need not be “fundamentally” or “materially” similar to provide notice of the conduct’s unconstitutionality. A reasonable person would know that obvious cruelty or wanton treatment done without necessity is unconstitutional. The Taylor decision may be a sign of the Supreme Court’s inclination to rein in the lower courts’ rampant application of qualified immunity, particularly in circumstances that might shock a reasonable person’s conscience.

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