Qualified immunity provides protection to government employees from lawsuits against them in their individual capacities for actions they took in the course of their employment.  This protection does not apply, however, if the government official violated “clearly established” law of which a reasonable government official in his or her position would have known.

Reference Desk

Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S. Ct. 808 (2009).

The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably. The protection of qualified immunity applies regardless of whether the government official’s error is “a mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on mixed questions of law and fact.” Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 567, 124 S.Ct. 1284, 157 L.Ed.2d 1068 (2004) (KENNEDY, J., dissenting) (citing Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 507, 98 S.Ct. 2894, 57 L.Ed.2d 895 (1978) (noting that qualified immunitycovers “mere mistakes in judgment, whether the mistake is one of fact or one of law”)).

Because qualified immunity is “an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability … it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985) (emphasis deleted). Indeed, we have made clear that the “driving force” behind creation of thequalified immunity doctrine was a desire to ensure that “`insubstantial claims’ against government officials [will] be resolved prior to discovery.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, n. 2, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987). Accordingly, “we repeatedly have stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation.” Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227, 112 S.Ct. 534, 116 L.Ed.2d 589 (1991) (per curiam).

In Saucier, 533 U.S. 194, 121 S.Ct. 2151, this Court mandated a two-step sequence for resolving government officials’ qualified immunity claims. First, a court must decide whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged (see Fed. Rules Civ. Proc. 12(b)(6), (c)) or shown (see Rules 50, 56) make out a violation of a constitutional right. 533 U.S., at 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151. Second, if the plaintiff has satisfied this first step, the court must decide whether the right at issue was “clearly established” at the time of defendant’s alleged misconduct. Ibid.Qualified immunity is applicable unless the official’s conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right.Anderson, supra, at 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034.

Our decisions prior to Saucier had held that “the better approach to resolving cases in which the defense of qualified immunity is raised is to determine first whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all.” County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 841, n. 5, 118 S.Ct. 1708, 140 L.Ed.2d 1043 (1998). Saucier made that suggestion a mandate. For the first time, we held that whether “the facts alleged show the officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right…must be the initial inquiry” in every qualified immunity case. 533 U.S., at 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151 (emphasis added). Only after completing this first step, we said, may a court turn to “the next, sequential step,” namely, “whether the right was clearly established.” Ibid.

This two-step procedure, the Saucier Court reasoned, is necessary to support the Constitution’s “elaboration from case to case” and to prevent constitutional stagnation. Ibid. “The law might be deprived of this explanation were a court simply to skip ahead to the question whether the law clearly established that the officer’s conduct was unlawful in the circumstances of the case.” Ibid.

Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340 (11th Cir. 2002).

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1994), Vinyard sued Officer Stanfield individually for use of excessive force in violation of her constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. Qualified immunity offers complete protection for government officials sued in their individual capacities if their conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). An officer will be entitled to qualified immunity if his actions were objectively reasonable, that is if an objectively reasonable officer in the same situation could have believed that the force used was not excessive. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638-41, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987). “The purpose of this immunity is to allow government officials to carry out their discretionary duties without the fear of personal liability or harassing litigation, protecting from suit all but the plainly incompetent or one who is knowingly violating the federal law.” Lee v. Ferraro,284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir.2002) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

To receive qualified immunity, the public official “must first prove that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the allegedly wrongful acts occurred.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, it is clear that Officer Stanfield was acting within the course and scope of his discretionary authority when he arrested Vinyard and transported her to jail.

“Once the defendant establishes that he was acting within his discretionary authority, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate.”Id. The Supreme Court has set forth a two-part test for the qualified immunityanalysis. “The threshold inquiry a court must undertake in a qualified immunityanalysis is whether [the] plaintiff’s allegations, if true, establish a constitutional violation.” Hope v. Pelzer, ___ U.S. ___, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 2513, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002) (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001)).[8] If a constitutional right would have been violated under the plaintiff’s version of the facts, “the next, sequential step is to ask whether the right was clearly established.” Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151; see also Lee, 284 F.3d at1347*1347 1194. Thus, we first analyze whether Officer Stanfield’s conduct, especially his pepper spray use during the jail ride, violated Vinyard’s constitutional rights.

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