A Pro-Plaintiff Ruling in a Civil Rights Act Case

Gormley v. Wood-El, 218 N.J. 72 (2014).  Cases under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §1983, are often difficult for plaintiffs.  Such cases often fail, frequently on dispositive motions, due to qualified immunity, as in Schneider v. Simonini, 163 N.J. 336 (2000), or for failure to show violation of a “clearly established legal right,” as in B.F. v. Div. of Youth & Family Servs., 296 N.J. Super. 372 (App. Div. 1997), or (in cases premised on substantive due process violations) for failure to show circumstances that “shock the conscience,” as in Rivkin v.  Dover Tp. Rent Leveling Bd., 143 N.J. 352 (1996) [Disclosure:  I represented an amicus curiae in Rivkin].  In this case, however, a 3-2 majority of the Supreme Court found that a Civil Rights Act claim, and a parallel cause of action under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c) (“NJCRA”), could proceed.  The majority opinion, written by Justice Albin, joined by Chief Justice Rabner and Judge Rodriguez, held that plaintiff had made a showing of a violation of a clearly established legal right that was sufficient to defeat summary judgment, and that qualified immunity did not protect defendants.  Dissenting, Justice LaVecchia, joined by Justice Patterson, disagreed on both of those issues.

Plaintiff was an attorney with the Department of the Public Advocate.  In that capacity, she represented clients who had been involuntarily committed to state psychiatric facilities.  Plaintiff needed to meet with a client who was housed at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital.  Such meetings were required to occur in the day room in the client’s ward.  Though there had been numerous incidents of violence in the day rooms, there were no security guards or cameras there.  Plaintiff met with her client who, unbeknownst to plaintiff, had been placed on Continuous Visual Observation status because she was a safety risk to herself and others, violently assaulted plaintiff in the day room.  Plaintiff suffered severe physical and mental injuries as a result of that attack.

Plaintiff sued the CEO of Ancora, defendant Wood-El, and others, under the Civil Rights Act and the NJCRA.  Plaintiff alleged that defendants had violated her substantive due process right to be free from State-created danger.  Defendants moved for summary judgment, but the Law Division found that plaintiff had presented enough evidence to defeat summary judgment.  Defendants appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed, applying qualified immunity and holding that no substantive due process right to be free from State-created danger was clearly established at the time of the incident.  The Supreme Court granted review and reversed the Appellate Division.

Justice Albin cited the four-part test for application of the State-created danger doctrine, which he drew from Bright v. Westmoreland County, 443 F.3d 276 (3d Cir. 2006).  In summary, under that test (1) the harm must have been “foreseeable and fairly direct,” (2) the State actor’s culpability must be of a degree that shocks the conscience, (3) the plaintiff must have been “a foreseeable victim of the defendant’s acts,” as opposed to a member of the general public, and (4) a State actor must have used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the plaintiff or rendered the plaintiff “more vulnerable than had the state not acted at all.”  Those tests were satisfied here.  The facts shocked the conscience of the majority, the harm was foreseeable, given the number of assaults that had occurred in day rooms, plaintiff, as a frequent visitor to psychiatric facilities, was a foreseeable victim, since “attorneys and psychiatrists often became the victims of assaults committed by patients,” and defendants’ actions in limiting interviews to the historically perilous day room, “having brought the dangerous patient together with the attorney in an unsecured setting,” without telling plaintiff that her client was dangerous, had brought about the harm.

Justice Albin also rejected the qualified immunity defense.  Qualified immunity “shields government officials from a suit when their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”  The majority determined that the State-created danger doctrine was clearly established at the time of the incicent, in that “most federal circuit courts of appeal” had adopted it, as had the Appellate Division. This was not a case where “officials acting in good faith had to engage in perilous predictions about the application of the law or the foreseeable harm that might flow from their conduct.”

Finally, Justice Albin concluded that even if qualified immunity had been applicable, it would not have barred plantiff’s request for injunctive relief.  The dissenters agreed with that proposition.