CERTIFIED QUESTIONS ANSWERED
This case is before us on certified questions and presents issues regarding the availability of qualified immunity for police officers arising from the alleged unlawful arrest and detention of Appellee Euna Robinson following a 911 dispatch. Initially, we are asked to determine whether a trial court's ruling denying the defense of qualified immunity to a government official is subject to interlocutory appeal. Also presented for our resolution is the issue of whether, as part of an immunity analysis, the subjective motivations of law enforcement officers are relevant when examining the reasonableness of actions taken in connection with allegations of unreasonable search and seizure, unlawful detention, and the use of excessive force. Finally, we are asked to decide whether a supervising police officer can be held civilly liable for the wrongful conduct of his or her subordinate officers.
[T]he police were confronted with a plaintiff [Ms. Robinson]
who ignored repeated verbal requests to appear. The deputies
advised plaintiff that they were there to check on her. The
plaintiff never responded to the deputies' requests to unlock her
front or back door.
Upon receiving no response from plaintiff, deputies, including Chief Pack, entered plaintiff's residence to ensure she was not in danger. Plaintiff claims Chief Pack directed the responding deputies to remove plaintiff from the residence. Plaintiff continued to refuse to appear or respond to their inquiries.
Plaintiff hid in a small crawlspace in her residence and refused to respond to officers' requests to come out. Plaintiff had been drinking alcohol to excess around the time of the incident and kept multiple loaded guns, swords, and knives in her residence. The deputies saw evidence of the drinking and some of the weapons. Being unable to visualize plaintiff to ensure she was not in possession of a weapon, a deputy advised that a police canine would be released if plaintiff did not show herself. Again, plaintiff did not respond. The canine located plaintiff in the attic's crawlspace, where she was hiding underneath comforters and blankets.
The dog, handled by a deputy not a defendant in this case, allegedly bit plaintiff on the head. However, plaintiff continued to refuse to leave the crawlspace or demonstrate that she did not possess a weapon. Deputies, not including Chief Pack, entered the tight quarters of the crawl space, but were unable to remove the plaintiff. When the deputies backed out of the crawl space, the plaintiff was told pepper spray would be administered if she did not show she was not in possession of a weapon and leave the crawl space. Once again, the plaintiff refused to respond. A deputy directed pepper spray into the crawlspace, resulting in the successful extrication of plaintiff. She was then handcuffed and taken to an awaiting ambulance. Notably, defendant James Pack did not arrest the plaintiff or touch her in any offensive or harmful way on April 4, 2002.
Following Appellee's arrest, she was taken to the sheriff's office to await a mental hygiene evaluation. The examining physician, Dr. Carlos Rivas, concluded that Ms. Robinson was mentally ill and [was] a danger to herself or others. Dr. Rivas diagnosed Appellee as suffering from a major depressive disorder, displaying psychotic features, having suicidal ideations, and being a substance abuser. Despite the determination by Dr. Rivas that Appellee was mentally ill and likely to cause harm to herself or others, the Mental Hygiene Commissioner decided that Ms. Robinson did not require hospitalization and that she could be managed with outpatient care. On April 3, 2003, Appellee instituted a civil action against Chief Pack, additional police officers, and various other law enforcement-related entities. (See footnote 2) Ms. Robinson asserted that she was subjected to unlawful detention, excessive force, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and abuse of process in connection with the events that transpired on April 4, 2002. Through a motion for summary judgment filed on March 1, 2006, Chief Pack argued his entitlement to judgment as a matter of law based on the lawful nature of the actions taken by the police officers and his lack of personal involvement with the use of the police canine, the pepper spray, or the presentment of Ms. Robinson to the mental hygiene commissioner. (See footnote 3) In addition, Chief Pack asserted his entitlement to both qualified and statutory immunity based on his employment status as a government official. (See footnote 4)
In responding to Appellant's motion for summary judgment, Ms. Robinson argued that a jury should decide if the motivation for the events surrounding her arrest on April 4, 2002, was a telephone call that she made earlier that same day, during which she
informed Chief Pack's wife of an affair between herself and Appellant. Based on its determination that the lawfulness of Appellee's arrest was dependent upon the motivations of Chief Pack, the trial court denied Appellant's motion for summary judgment. (See footnote 5)
Through its order of March 28, 2008, the Circuit Court of Kanawha County certified the following three questions to this Court:
1. Is a government official entitled to an immediate appeal of
the denial of a motion for summary judgment that is based upon
2. Are the alleged subjective motivations of a police officer relevant to an analysis of the reasonableness of an entry into a residence, the detention of the occupant of the residence, and the alleged use of force upon the occupant?
3. Is a supervising police officer civilly liable for the alleged wrongful conduct of his or her subordinate officers?
With regard to each of the certified questions, the trial court indicated an affirmative response. By order dated September 25, 2008, this Court accepted the certified questions and docketed the matter for resolution.
An appellate court reviewing the denial of the defendant's claim
of immunity need not consider the correctness of the plaintiff's
version of the facts, nor even determine whether the plaintiff's
allegations actually state a claim. All it need determine is a
question of law: whether the legal norms allegedly violated by
the defendant were clearly established at the time of the
challenged actions or, in cases where the district court has
denied summary judgment for the defendant on the ground that
even under the defendant's version of the facts the defendant's
conduct violated clearly established law, whether the law clearly
proscribed the actions the defendant claims he took.
Mitchell, 511 U.S. at 528.
The final factor of the Cohen test requires us to consider whether a qualified immunity ruling is effectively unreviewable at the appeal stage. Postponing review of a ruling denying immunity to the post-trial stage is fruitless, as the United States Supreme Court reasoned in Mitchell, because the underlying objective in any immunity determination (absolute or qualified) is immunity from suit. 511 U.S. at 526-27; see also Gray-Hopkins v. Prince George's County, Md., 309 F.3d 224, 229 (4th Cir. 2002) (Because qualified immunity is an immunity from having to litigate, as contrasted with an immunity from liability, it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial.) (omitting internal citation); Jenkins v. Medford, 119 F.3d 1156, 1159 (4th Cir. 1997) (observing that denial of qualified immunity defense subjects the [government] official to the burdens of pretrial matters and opining that some of the rights inherent in a qualified immunity defense are [consequently] lost). Traditional appellate review of a qualified immunity ruling cannot achieve the intended goal of an immunity ruling: the right not to be subject to the burden of trial. Hutchison, 198 W.Va. at 148, 479 S.E.2d at 658. As a result, the third factor of Cohen is easily met.
Application of the Cohen test demonstrates that a circuit court's denial of
summary judgment that is predicated on qualified immunity is an interlocutory ruling which
is subject to immediate appeal under the collateral order doctrine. Based on this
determination, we answer the first certified question in the affirmative.
[T]he reasonableness inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the question is whether the officers' actions are objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. . . . An officer's evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force; nor will an officer's good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional.
Id. at 397; accord Whren v. U.S., 517 U.S. 806, 813 (1996) (stating that [s]ubjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable-cause Fourth Amendment analysis); Rowland v. Perry, 41 F.3d 167, 173 (4th Cir. 1994) (finding that officer's subjective state of mind is not relevant to the qualified immunity inquiry).
In S.P. v. City of Takoma Park, 134 F.3d 260 (4th Cir. 1998), a factually apposite decision that involved the involuntary seizure and transporting of an individual for an emergency psychiatric evaluation by law enforcement officers, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals examined whether qualified immunity applied to the actions taken by the police. Similar to what occurred in this case, a third party's (See footnote 12) call to a dispatcher raised concern that the plaintiff was in danger of harming herself and in need of police assistance. Id. at 264. Based on the plaintiff's agitated mental state when the police arrived, she was handcuffed, removed from her home, and taken for an emergency evaluation. After two emergency room physicians examined the plaintiff , she was involuntarily admitted for further psychiatric evaluation and care. (See footnote 13) S.P., 134 F.3d at 265.
At issue in S.P. was whether the district court correctly determined that the defendant police officers were entitled to qualified immunity based on the plaintiff's failure to demonstrate that the officers' actions in seizing and detaining her were against established law. 134 F.3d at 263. The plaintiff argued that the police officers had violated her right to be free from seizure for the purpose of medical treatment absent probable cause to believe she suffered from a mental disorder, posed a danger of harm to herself, and that there was no less restrictive alternative available. 134 F.3d at 265-66. After examining whether the police officers' actions met the test of objective legal reasonableness . . . assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established, the Fourth Circuit ruled in S.P. that [r]easonable officers . . .would have concluded that involuntarily detaining [plaintiff] Peller was not only reasonable, but prudent. Id. at 266-67 (omitting internal quotation marks). Dispelling the notion that the defense of qualified immunity can be affected by the mental state of the arresting officers, the court found the officers' lack of knowledge that probable cause was needed to effectuate a lawful detention to be incorporeal. 134 F.3d at 268 n.5; see also Telepo v. Palmer Township, 40 F.Supp.2d 596, 605 (E.D. Pa. 1999) (refusing to deny immunity to police officers based on alleged retaliatory motivation for execution of domestic order because the qualified immunity inquiry is an objective one, which asks how a reasonable officer would have acted under these circumstances).
As support for her position, Appellee maintains that this Court has previously dealt with and summarily rejected the argument that subjective motivations are not relevant to an immunity inquiry. In Neiswonger v. Hennessey, 215 W.Va. 749, 601 S.E.2d 69 (2004), a case in which personal injury resulted during a burglary investigation, we reviewed the trial court's dismissal of the plaintiffs' state law claims (See footnote 14) based on a district court's prior dismissal of the section 1983 action. (See footnote 15) In deciding that the trial court wrongly relied upon collateral estoppel to dismiss the plaintiffs' state law claims, we reasoned:
In the present case, the appellants [plaintiffs] claim that
Officer Hennessey and the Morgantown City Police Department
committed torts as those torts are defined by West Virginia law,
and as they are legally cognizable by West Virginia's courts.
Whether the torts have been committed depends upon the intent
of the alleged tortfeasor, his recklessness, and whether he
followed the prescribed standard of care. Whether the torts
have been committed, thus, depends potentially upon the
character of the alleged tortfeasor's conduct and upon his state
of mind. In the federal action involved in the present case, the
federal court looked at the character of the alleged tortfeasors'
actions to determine only whether they were objectively
reasonable under the Fourth Amendment guarantee that an
individual be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The federal court did not consider whether the alleged
tortfeasors' conduct constituted torts as defined by West
215 W.Va. at 753, 601 S.E.2d at 73.
Appellee's reliance on the quoted language from Neiswonger is misplaced. While that language addresses the relevance of the alleged tortfeasor's state of mind to various torts, the second certified question is framed solely in terms of asking whether the subjective motivations of a governmental officer are relevant to Appellee's constitutionally- based claims. (See footnote 16) Because the trial court did not ask us to decide whether subjective motivations are material to the tort claims brought by Ms. Robinson, Neiswonger is not relevant to the issues presented by the second certified question.
In line with clear federal authority and our prior rulings recognizing that the objective legal reasonableness of questioned actions in light of clearly established law is the test for evaluating conduct for purposes of an immunity analysis, we hold that the subjective motivations of a police officer are not relevant to a determination of whether qualified immunity exists in connection with allegations of an unreasonable search and seizure, an unlawful detention, or the use of excessive force. See Hutchison, 198 W.Va. at 148-49, 479 S.E.2d at 658-59. Based on this determination, we answer the second certified question in the negative.
[I]mposition of vicarious liability on supervisory officials for
allegedly unconstitutional acts by their subordinates is
inappropriate because supervisors and their subordinates are
fellow servants of the same master-employer . . . and thus the
master-servant relationship, a prerequisite for vicarious liability,
is lacking between these individuals.
Id. at 505 (quoting Santiago v. City of Philadelphia, 435 F.Supp. 136, 148 (E.D. Pa. 1977)).
In the recent decision of in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), a case filed by a Pakistani Muslim in connection with his arrest and detention following the September 11, 2001, attacks, (See footnote 19) the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of supervisory liability in the federal analog to a section 1983 case, otherwise known as a Bivens case. (See footnote 20) Addressing the issue of vicarious liability, the high court stated:
[R]espondent correctly concedes that Government officials may
not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their
subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior. . . .
Because vicarious liability is inapplicable to Bivens and § 1983
suits, a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official
defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has
violated the Constitution.
__ U.S. at __, 129 S.Ct. at 1948.
The Supreme Court expressly rejected the contention that 'knowledge and acquiescence [by supervisors] in their subordinates' use of discriminatory criteria to make classification decisions among detainees' was sufficient to find that the supervisors had committed a constitutional violation. Iqbal, __ U.S. at __, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. Concluding that the term 'supervisory liability' is a misnomer in a section 1983 suit or a Bivens suit, the high court determined:
Absent vicarious liability, each Governmental official, his or her
title notwithstanding, is only liable for his or her own
misconduct. In the context of determining whether there is a
violation of clearly established right to overcome qualified
immunity, purpose rather than knowledge is required to impose Bivens liability on the subordinate for unconstitutional
discrimination; the same holds true for an official charged with
violations arising from his or her superintendent
Id. at __, 129 S.Ct. at 1949.
Were there any doubt as to the high court's actions with regard to supervisory liability, we find significance in the remarks offered by Justice Souter in his dissent: (See footnote 21)
Lest there be any mistake, . . . the majority is not narrowing the
scope of supervisory liability; it is eliminating Bivens supervisory liability entirely. The nature of a supervisory
liability theory is that the supervisor may be liable, under certain
conditions, for the wrongdoing of his subordinates, and it is this
very principle that the majority rejects.
Iqbal, __ U.S. at __, 129 S.Ct. at 1957, (Souter, J., dissenting). Criticizing the majority for addressing an issue that was not briefed or argued, Justice Souter identified several different potential tests for imposing supervisory liability. (See footnote 22) See id. at __, 129 S.Ct. at 1958; see also Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791 (4th Cir. 1994) (adopting three-factor test for imposing supervisory liability in § 1983 suit). (See footnote 23)
As it stands today, the issue of supervisory liability in connection with an alleged civil rights violation is clear: there is none. Under the holding of Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), (See footnote 24) a supervising police officer may not be held liable for
the wrongful actions of his or her subordinate officers in connection with an alleged civil rights violation because a supervising police officer is only liable for his or her own conduct and not that of his/her subordinates. Given our conclusion on this issue, we answer the third certified question in the negative.
Based on the forgoing, we answer the first certified question in the affirmative and the second and third questions in the negative.