Author: Kyle Graham


Messerschmidt v. Millender: What’s Next, After the Supreme Court Rules?

Not Quite Messerschmidt, But You Get The Idea

The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in Messerschmidt v. Millender.  In this § 1983 case, the Court will consider the circumstances in which a law enforcement officer who prepares or executes an overbroad and/or insufficiently particularized search warrant is entitled to qualified immunity from damages.

Orin Kerr has posted an analysis of the case over on SCOTUSblog; I have little to add to his thoughtful commentary. As Professor Kerr appears to, I anticipate that the Supreme Court will find that on the facts before it, the police officers in question are entitled to qualified immunity, and reverse the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

But what if it doesn’t?  The case will return to the district court, and that’s when the really interesting (and under-examined) legal issues will arise. A very large share of the appellate caselaw that involves claims brought under § 1983 concentrates upon whether a defendant or defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. There is a relative dearth of precedent concerning matters such as damages and, especially, causation.  On any remand in Messerschmidt, however, possible causation and damages problems with the plaintiffs’ case may loom large, as they did in the last warrant case decided by the Supreme Court, Groh v. Ramirez.

In Groh, as some of you may recall, a law enforcement officer (an ATF agent, to be precise) goofed by failing to list the items to be seized in the search warrant itself (in the space on the warrant reserved for identification of these items, he simply typed in the premises to be searched). These items were identified in the affidavit, however, which also stated probable cause for the search. On these facts, the Groh majority held that qualified immunity was not available to the officer.

Once the case was remanded back to the district court, the United States (Groh was a Bivens case) emphasized that the error in question really wasn’t the cause of significant damages.  To understand this argument, recall that in tort law, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s negligence was a “but for” cause (also known as a “cause-in-fact”) of the plaintiff’s injury. The key word is “negligence,” to be distinguished from “conduct.” The Third Restatement of Torts illustrates this point using a hypothetical driver who hits a pedestrian while driving 57 miles per hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone. According to the Restatement, if the pedestrian sues the driver for negligence, her claim will falter for lack of causation, unless the driver would not have hit the pedestrian (or would have caused less damage) if he had been driving at the 50-mile-per-hour speed limit. (Significantly, in the Restatement’s ‘non-negligent’ counterfactual, the driver is operating his vehicle at a speed that’s at the very cusp of negligence.)

Similarly, on remand in Groh, after pointing out that conventional tort rules regarding causation apply in  § 1983 cases, the United States argued that in a perfect world that resembled what actually happened—except that there was no drafting error with the warrant—a search warrant for the premises still could and would have been issued and executed, in precisely the same way that the flawed warrant was. Therefore, according to the United States, the plaintiff in Groh should receive only nominal damages, since the agent’s error, properly isolated, did not cause any actual damages.

Groh settled prior to trial, so we don’t know how that argument worked out for the United States. Nevertheless, it seems likely that if the Supreme Court affirms the Ninth Circuit in Messerschmidt, the defense will make a similar argument on remand. The principal damage item in Messerschmidt appears to be the alleged emotional distress associated with the officers’ entry. (Here, keep in mind that the warrant was executed at around 5:00 a.m.) As in Groh, the defense will stress that the same entry presumably would have occurred pursuant to a properly tailored warrant, meaning that the plaintiffs’ primary damage item wasn’t really caused by the problem with the warrant.

This argument has its strengths and weaknesses (or at least, limitations), which I will avoid for now. Perhaps the more important point is that while we all focus a great deal on qualified immunity, other elements of a § 1983 cause of action remain precedential terra incognita, or nearly so, as to many of the different types of claims catalyzed by the statute.  It takes time to “fill in” the law surrounding a legal theory, and there simply haven’t been enough published decisions regarding many § 1983 theories for this to have occurred.

Moreover, certain attributes of a cause of action tend to be “filled in” faster than others.  My suspicion is that but-for causation is typically either the last, or one of the last elements of a claim to develop a substantial body of useful caselaw-created rules.  The delay owes to the fact that but-for causation is doubly shielded from appellate review.   A jury normally determines the “cut-off” line between negligence (or otherwise improper conduct) and non-negligent behavior; and as the Restatement hypothetical illustrates, it is this cut-off that serves as the baseline for their subsequent causation determination.  In effect, an appellate court tasked to review a but-for causation determination by a jury must peer inside a black box that is itself hidden inside another black box.  Little wonder, then, that there exist few useful but-for causation guideposts in the caselaw.


A Guide to the Eight Most Suspect Types of Law Review Articles

This is simply my list of the eight most suspect types of articles; I appreciate that others may suggest different, or additional, entries.

1. The Repository of Hope

“As the single-word title connotes, I am very disappointed that this article did not place in a T14 journal.”

2. The Strained Debunker

“In Part I, I will characterize a 1974 Pace Law Review note and a 2007 MySpace entry as embodying ‘conventional wisdom.’ ”

3. The Old-Wine-In-New-Bottles

“No one has evaluated the rule against perpetuities from an animal-rights perspective before, so, you know, what the hell.”

4. The One-Off

“In my previous article, I made a significant contribution to the literature. In this piece, I will coast on the vapors of that article.”

5. The Something Is Unconstitutional

“This article would make a fairly solid student note. It is my tenure piece.”

6. The Turf Staker

“My pre-emption check discovered no articles that cover this territory. I pretty much worked backward from there.”

7. The Half-Hearted Symposium Submission

“We would have tried harder, but hey, we’re talking about a symposium here.”

8. The Torn from the Headlines

“Few would recognize that the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in ___ vs. ___ would fundamentally alter ___ law. Yet it did, or at least, you won’t be able to prove that it didn’t until this article is already well on its way to publication.”


Law Professors, Petitions and Kristallnacht

Not long ago, I was asked to sign a petition, circulating among law professors, that condemns the recent pepper-spraying of protesters at the University of California-Davis. This invitation rekindled my interest in the origins of these petitions.

Law professors qua law professors have become engaged in topical public controversies since the early 1900s. Some law professors spoke out about the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, and many professors took well-publicized positions on Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing plan. I am unfamiliar with any widely distributed petition as to either event, however. (Although the AALS did initiate, only to abandon, a poll of law faculties designed to gauge their support or opposition to FDR’s plan.)

The first petition I have found that specifically requested the support of American law faculties circulated almost exactly 73 years ago, in early December 1938. This petition was prepared and distributed by telegram shortly after the Kristallnacht pogroms, and read as follows:

Faculty of Law [Institution, Location]

The Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam invites you kindly to inform them by telegram before December ten whether your Faculty of Law would be willing to second the following resolution. The invitation being wired today to all Faculties of Law in the British Empire, United States of America, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland. The Faculties of Law of the Universities mentioned below noting with sorrow and dismay that in some countries innumerable people are being persecuted and tormented on account of their faith, race or political convictions and that particularly in the so called Concentration Camps innocent people are without legal procedure subjected to inhuman treatment considering that the basic principles of justice are thus insufferably violated voice their protest against this violation in view of their duty to uphold the principles of justice and the rights of man appeal to the conscience of mankind to support them in this protest and decide to publish this resolution and to communicate it to their respective governments.

The telegram, which on its face requested the support of each contacted institution (as opposed to the endorsement of individual professors) met with a range of responses. Some American law faculties (including those at Yale, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Colorado) signed on to the petition. At Harvard, it was agreed that individual professors could endorse the petition, if they so chose, but that no such backing would come from the general faculty, speaking as a whole and for the institution generally.

Today, it’s assumed that individual professors, as opposed to the institutions where they work, represent the proper signatories of a petition such at the one circulated by the University of Amsterdam law faculty. Were assumptions different, one presumes that there would be a lot fewer petitions in circulation. Plus faculty meetings would become much longer.


Summers v. Tice: The Rest of the Story

Most law students encounter Summers v. Tice in their introductory Torts courses. If you are (or were) among these students, you probably recall the basic facts: two negligent hunters, two simultaneous (or nearly so) shotgun discharges, one injured companion (shot in the right eye [necessitating its removal] and upper lip), only one culprit, but no way for the plaintiff to tell who shot him. Given these circumstances, the Summers court flipped the burden to each of the two defendants to exonerate himself, rather than allowing the plaintiff to founder on the shoals of but-for causation and the preponderance standard of proof.

The California Supreme Court’s opinion in Summers is pretty short, and I’ve long been curious about the defenses that the defendants (Harold Tice and Ernest Simonson) raised in this case. So I went to the California State Archives a while back and read through the case file.

An interesting story emerged. Whereas Simonson did not put on a very aggressive defense at trial, Tice did. Simonson conceded that both he and Tice had fired shots that could have caused Summers’ injury. Tice, by contrast, testified that Simonson, and Simonson alone, had shot the plaintiff, and that in fact Tice had not fired his gun for minutes prior to the fateful blast. To the same effect, Tice produced two deputy sheriffs as witnesses. These men testified that when they interviewed Simonson shortly after the accident, Simonson had told them that he was “the one” who had fired the shot (though on cross-examination, one of the deputies hedged a bit on this point).

Moreover, Tice argued that but for the plaintiff’s own negligence, he could have identified his assailant.  Specifically, Tice testified that he had been using No. 6 shot, whereas Simonson had been using No. 7½ shot. The two pellets are of slightly different size, and capable of distinction.  Summers himself testified that, although the shot had been given to him after its removal, he could not find it when he looked for the pellets at his home.  These facts, if accepted, place a very different spin on the case. One could no longer say that the defendants were in a better position than the plaintiff was to identify who fired the injurious shot, which of course was a key ingredient to the Summers decision.

Unfortunately for Tice, he apparently did not strike the trial judge (it was a bench trial) as a particularly persuasive witness. The judge made findings of fact that “the defendants, and each of them, were guilty of gross negligence in firing a gun in the general direction of the plaintiff”; that Tice’s testimony that he had not fired his gun for minutes prior to the accident was untrue; and that both defendants were using No. 7½ shot.

These findings of fact paved the way for the California Supreme Court’s decision above, following a short-lived reversal by the Court of Appeal.

The lesson, if there is one: Credibility matters.

Summers v. Tice, kind of


“Mad Men” Meets Prosser?

I recently visited the American Law Institute archives, maintained by the University of Pennsylvania. There, I dove into the ALI records that relate to the development the Restatement (Second) of Torts. The documents I saw reveal a great deal about the creation of this treatise, and the atmosphere in which it was prepared.

For example, have you ever wondered what the scholars responsible for the Restatement drank, when they met back in the 1950s? Me neither, but I was nevertheless impressed by this beverage menu for a 1956 meeting of the Second Restatement’s advisory committee. If nothing else, it establishes that the committee had the good sense to repair to an establishment that offered both manhattans and martinis by the gallon.

But, one might think, the fact that these drinks were available at the meeting doesn’t mean that they were consumed there. Well, before taking a position on this question, it might be wise to review this schedule for the session, which indicates that drinks were to be served before lunch, at lunch, and at the close of each day’s discussions.

(Images courtesy the University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center, American Law Institute Archives [Restatement (Second) Category; Restatement (Second) Torts Record Group, Box 25, File Folder 25-2])