Crawford-El v. Britton

PETITIONER: Crawford-El
RESPONDENT: Britton
LOCATION: United States Department of State

DOCKET NO.: 96-827
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 574 (1998)
ARGUED: Dec 01, 1997
DECIDED: May 04, 1998

ADVOCATES:
Daniel M. Schember - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Jeffrey P. Minear - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court, supporting the respondent
Walter A. Smith, Jr. - Washington, D.C., argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Leonard Crawford-El, a prisoner in the District of Columbia's correctional system, was ultimately transferred to a federal prison in Florida. Crawford- El's belongings were transferred separately. A correctional officer had Crawford-El's brother-in-law pick his belongs rather than ship them. Crawford- El finally received his belongings months after reaching Florida. Crawford-El filed suit under 42 USC section 1983, which provides that "Every person who... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress...." Crawford-El alleged that the diversion of his property was motivated by an intent to retaliate against him for exercising his First Amendment rights. The District Court dismissed the complaint. In remanding, the en banc Court of Appeals conclude among other things, that in an unconstitutional-motive case, a plaintiff must establish motive by clear and convincing evidence.

Question

May lawsuits invoking 42 USC section 1983 to allege that a public official violated a prisoner's rights because of an unlawful motive be dismissed because the plaintiff fails to produce clear and convincing evidence of the unlawful motive?

Media for Crawford-El v. Britton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 01, 1997 in Crawford-El v. Britton

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-827, Leonard Rollon Crawford-El v. Patricia Britton.

Mr. Schember.

Daniel M. Schember:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, a First Amendment retaliation case, the Court held that district courts should protect defendants' qualified immunity through firm application of the civil rules protecting defendants against the burden of broad-ranging discovery and enabling them promptly to seek and in substantial cases promptly to obtain summary judgment.

The Federal rules are fully sufficient to accomplish these purposes.

At the outset of litigation district courts can hold the plaintiff's discovery in abeyance and allow defendants to inquire of the plaintiffs, obtaining from the plaintiffs all evidence that they have to support their contentions that they exercised First Amendment rights, that the defendants knew about it, that the defendants injured the plaintiffs, and that the motive for the injury was retaliation for exercise--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, I suppose you're right that the rules and the procedures are fully sufficient if we wish to devote a huge amount of resources to complaints of this type and to subject officials who have a claim of immunity to prolonged discovery.

Daniel M. Schember:

--That's what I'm saying, Your Honor.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

If those two factors are eliminated, then I suppose you're quite right, the rules are quite adequate.

Daniel M. Schember:

Yes.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

But the question is whether or not the cost of these proceedings to the Government official who wishes to assert the immunity are so high that the purpose of the immunity is substantially lost.

Daniel M. Schember:

Yes.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Or am I wrong that that's the question?

Daniel M. Schember:

No, that's the question, but the two burdens identified in Harlow are, first, the burdens of trial and the burdens of broad-ranging discovery, and what I'm suggesting is that at the outset of the case the district court through firm application of the rules, as the Court said should be done in Harlow, can protect defendants against broad-ranging discovery and, indeed, impose the burden on the plaintiff to come forward immediately with all evidence to support the claim, all elements of the claim, and if the plaintiff is unable to do so immediately, the defendant is entitled to summary judgment unless, of course, the plaintiff can show specific facts giving rise to a reasonable likelihood that discovery will uncover necessary evidence.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Schember, speaking more generally there's talk of discovery abuses not just in this case but throughout the country, and the answer often is, well, the district judges have it within their power to prevent that, and I think a lot of people agree that's true, but you have 700 district judges in the country and they just react differently to this sort of problem.

Daniel M. Schember:

Yes, and I think guidance from this Court could tell them how to firmly apply the civil rules, and the purpose of my argument is to suggest precisely what should be said in that regard, and that by holding the plaintiff's discovery in abeyance at the outset of the case until the defendant has been entitled to discover all the plaintiff's evidence, thereby placing the defendant in the position of promptly seeking summary judgment unless the plaintiff has sufficient evidence or has a basis for seeking discovery, that is firm control that prohibits excessive burden on the defendant at the outset.

And even if the plaintiffs make a showing that there's a reasonable likelihood that discovery will uncover evidence supporting their claims the district court still could hold their discovery in abeyance if the defendant wished to assert a defense under Mount Healthy Board of Education v. Doyle, saying even if I... we were substantially motivated by hostility to the plaintiff's exercise of constitutional rights, nonetheless we would have taken the same action in any event, and if defendants come forward with sufficient evidence to establish that defense, they are entitled immediately to summary judgment on that ground unless, of course, plaintiff immediately can present admissible evidence rebutting that, or, again, make a showing that there are facts giving rise to a reasonable likelihood that discovery--

William H. Rehnquist:

When you're talking about intent, though, that's a very difficult issue to get summary judgment on, because it's the subjective state of someone's mind, and it's just something that ordinarily it goes to a trier of fact, I think.

Daniel M. Schember:

--Well, certainly the Harlow court commented on that with respect to the subject of general bad faith and malice.

However, inquiry as to the specific intent of unconstitutional animus I would suggest is narrower.

For example, the plaintiff certainly has to show I exercised First Amendment rights and the defendant knew about it, and discovery as to that inquiry certainly is narrower than whether the defendant's a bad person, a malicious person, someone who customarily is mean to people, that type of thing.

Antonin Scalia:

It still gets you into subjective investigations, which is really what we tried to put behind us in Harlow.

Daniel M. Schember:

Well--

Antonin Scalia:

I mean, we really tried to make this an objective inquiry.

Daniel M. Schember:

--Well, the Court certainly said that qualified immunity is to be based upon a showing... on the fact that a... no violation of clearly established law exists, but, of course, retaliation for exercise of First Amendment rights, or discrimination on the basis of race or sex was clearly... is clearly established constitutional law.

Antonin Scalia:

That clearly established law principle was simply the device which would enable an objective determination to be made in Harlow.

What this case requires, if we're to follow the philosophy of Harlow, is some other device that would likewise produce an objective test rather than a subjective one.

Now, I'm not sure that what the D.C. Circuit majority did here does that.

It's still a subjective test by clear and convincing evidence, but Judge Silberman's test would certainly do that.

Daniel M. Schember:

Well, but Justice--