An important, case-determinative issue on de minimis harm

An important, case-determinative issue on de minimis harm

Two lines of cases have developed in the District Court of Minnesota with respect to whether qualified immunity shields officers from liability in excessive force cases when de minimis injury results from a use of force.  Under strikingly similar facts, some courts are applying qualified immunity, and other courts are finding the officers potentially liable.

 

The issue centers around excessive force incidents prior to the 8th Circuit’s decision in Chambers v. Pennycook, 641 F.3d 898, 908 (8th Cir. 2011).  The Chambers court noted it was an open question as to whether an excessive force claim requires some minimum level of injury. Chambers resolved the issue and held that a plaintiff can state a claim for excessive force even if the harm resulting from the force was de minimis, which has been defined in numerous decisions as non-permanent.  Interestingly, what constitutes de minimis harm has been construed more broadly than many citizens would expect.  Mere cuts, bruises, and even a single 5 second-taser discharge have been held to constitute de mimimis harm unless objective medical records show some long-term or permanent injury.   Cook v. City of Bella Villa (8th Cir. 2009).

 

The Chambers court determined that the focus of the inquiry should be whether the use of force was justified under the applicable legal standard, not the extent of the injury resulting from the use of force.  But Chambers also made clear that officers using force that resulted in de minimis injury prior to that court decision would not have known that they could be violating the Constitution.

 

Given the state of the law [at the time of the incident], a reasonable officer could have believed that as long as he did not cause more than de minimis injury to an arrestee, his actions would not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.  A reasonable officer was permitted to assume that legal conclusion when determining how to proceed, and he is entitled to have his conduct judged according to that standard for purposes of qualified immunity.  Chambers v. Pennycook, 641 F.3d 898, 908 (2011).

 

Many courts in the District of Minnesota have applied the qualified immunity doctrine and determined that, prior  to Chambers¸ the state of the law did not put officers on notice that using force that resulted in merely de minimis harm could violate the Constitution.  These courts hold that, since the 8th Circuit law was not clearly established prior to Chambers, qualified immunity shields officers from liability in such cases.  Notable cases in this line of decision include:  Peterson v. Kopp, 2012 WL 4872668 (D. Minn. Oct. 15, 2012); LaCross v. Duluth, 2012 WL 1694611 (D. Minn. May 14, 2012); Jones v. Clark,2012 WL 388699, *10-12 (D. Minn. Feb. 7, 2012); Imp v. Wallace, 2011 WL 4396941 (D. Minn. Sept. 21, 2011); and McClennon v. Kipke, 821 F. Supp. 2d 1101, 1108 (D. Minn. 2011)(taser not known to be more than de minimis, citing Chambers).

 

But other courts in the District of Minnesota have ruled that qualified immunity does not shield an officer from liability for de minimis harm for pre-Chambers incidents if the use of force was unjustified.  A case in this line includes: Newton v. Walker, 2012 WL 4856163 (D. Minn. Oct. 12, 2012); see also Orsak v. Metropolitan Airports Comm’n Airport Police Dep’t, 675 F. Supp. 2d 944 (2009) (single taser discharge may not be de minimis harm).  Though these cases align with the Chambers holding that force must be justified regardless of the level of injury that results, they ignore a fundamental precept of the qualified immunity analysis: officers cannot be held liable when they were not on notice that their conduct might violate the Constitution.  Many of these decisions acknowledge that other courts within the District of Minnesota have come to the opposite conclusion, and that the state of the law was unclear prior to Chambers.

 

Respectfully, under a proper application of the qualified immunity analysis, if judges within the same district cannot agree on the proper application of the law, the law is not “clearly established,” and qualified immunity should apply to an officers’ conduct.  After all, how can an officer know whether they are violating the Constitution when judges within the same district disagree on its application?

 

As it stands now, whether an officer is potentially liable or not depends on which District of Minnesota judge is assigned to the matter.  Hopefully, there will soon be an 8th Circuit case resolving this conflict.