May 18, 2015

Supreme Court Decides City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan

On May 18, 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, No. 13-1412, holding that police officers were entitled to qualified immunity against a constitutional claim based on alleged failure to accommodate a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act because any such constitutional right, assuming it exists, was not clearly established.   

Teresa Sheehan, who suffers from a schizoaffective disorder, lived in a group home for people dealing with mental illness. After Sheehan threated to kill her social worker with a knife, San Francisco police officers were dispatched to help transport Sheehan to a secure facility. When the officers first entered Sheehan’s private room, she grabbed a knife and threatened to kill them. The officers retreated, and the door was closed. Concerned about what Sheehan might do behind the closed door, the officers reentered her room without considering if they could accommodate her disability. Sheehan confronted the officers again with her knife and, when pepper spray proved ineffective, the officers shot Sheehan multiple times.

Sheehan brought suit, claiming that San Francisco violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., by subduing her in a manner that did not reasonably accommodate her disability. She also sued the officers in their personal capacity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for violating her Fourth Amendment rights. The district court granted summary judgment for San Francisco and the officers. The Ninth Circuit vacated in part, holding that because the ADA’s accommodation requirement should be read to encompass anything a public entity does and because exigent circumstances inform the reasonableness analysis under the ADA, it was for the jury to decide whether San Francisco should have accommodated Sheehan. As to the officers, the Ninth Circuit held that the initial entry into Sheehan’s room was lawful, the officers reasonably used their firearms, but a jury could reasonably find that the officers provoked Sheehan.

The Supreme Court dismissed its grant of review on the question of whether the ADA “requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the court of bringing the suspect into custody” as improvidently granted, concluding that the court below had not addressed the argument on which the city relied. 

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling denying the officers qualified immunity. The Court recognized that “[p]ublic officials are immune from suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 unless they have ‘violated a statutory of constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct,’” and that an “officer ‘cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definitive that any reasonable official in his shoes would have understood that he was violating it.’ ” 

The Court had “no doubt that the officers did not violate any federal right when they opened the door the first time” because officers may “enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” Because the two entries were part of a single, continuous search or seizure, the officers were not required to justify a continuing emergency with respect to the second entry. The Court concluded that had Sheehan not been disabled, the officers would not have violated her constitutional rights by opening the door the second time. The Court stated that after the officers opened the door the second time, their use of force was reasonable.

The Court also concluded that the officer’s failure to accommodate Sheehan’s illness did not violate clearly established law. Distinguishing the case law relied on by the Ninth Circuit, the Court noted that no “precedent clearly established that there was not an objective need for immediate entry” in this case, and without fair notice, an officer is entitled to qualified immunity. 

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Scalia filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justice Kagan joined. Justice Breyer took no part in the consideration or decision of the court.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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