We previously wrote here about the defense of qualified immunity to a Section 1983 claim for violation of civil rights.
On April 16, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued its opinion in Ramirez v. Escajeda. In that opinion, the court addressed the question of whether and to what extent it had jurisdiction to hear an interlocutory appeal of a district court’s denial of the qualified immunity defense.
The facts of Ramirez.
Maria Ramirez called 911 the evening of June 23, 2015, saying that her son Daniel was threatening to hang himself and needed help. Maria insists that she “did not tell dispatch that [Daniel] had a weapon because he did not.”
Ruben Escajeda, Jr., an El Paso Police Department officer, responded to the call, which he maintains was “a call-out regarding a suicidal subject with a weapon.” He arrived at the Ramirezes’ house and went to the backyard to look for Daniel.
It was dusk when Escajeda arrived, and the parties dispute exactly what he was able to see. The Ramirezes allege that Escajeda “immediately saw Daniel in the process of hanging himself from a basketball net.” But “Daniel was clearly still alive,” they maintain, and “was grabbing the rope around his neck and touching the ground with his tiptoes—trying to save his own life.”
Escajeda counters that he saw Daniel but “was barely able to make out the deceased through the near dark” and could not see that Daniel was attempting to hang himself. Whatever the lighting conditions allowed him to see, Escajeda contends that he repeatedly asked Daniel to show his hands.
When Escajeda was “unable to see . . . the subject’s hands” “after multiple demands,” he warned Daniel “that he would tase him if he did not raise his hands.” Because Escajeda still could not see Daniel’s hands, “he deployed his taser.”
The Ramirezes allege that the taser hit Daniel in his chest and abdomen and that his body immediately went limp. Then Escajeda approached Daniel and discovered that he “was hanging himself during the encounter.”
Escajeda removed Daniel from the basketball net and began CPR. Daniel was tran-ported to a hospital and soon pronounced dead. Police did not recover a weapon.
The Ramirezes file a Section 1983 claim.
Maria and her husband Pedro sued Escajeda in his personal capacity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that “use of a taser was not necessary nor justified” and was “an objectively unreasonable and excessive amount of force” in violation of their son’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Escajeda moved to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), asserting qualified immunity and stressing that plaintiffs had not met the plausibility standard for pleading.
The district court denied the motion, holding that Escajeda was not entitled to qualified immunity based on well-pleaded facts in the complaint.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that if a defendant raises a qualified immunity defense and the district court denies it, the Court of Appeals has jurisdiction to immediately review the decision on interlocutory appeal.
But, appellate review is “restricted to determinations of questions of law and legal issues” and the court does not consider the correctness of the plaintiff’s version of the facts.”
This is where Escajeda’s appeal failed. His sole contention on appeal was that the Ramirezes had not pleaded “a claim [to] relief that is plausible on its face.”
Escajeda’s appeal was, therefore, “merely an attack on the district court’s denial of his motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.” The Fifth Circuit concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to consider that challenge at this early facet of the proceedings.
Escajega could have argued on appeal that the facts alleged did not rise to the level of showing that he violated Daniel’s clearly-established constitutional rights, but he did not.
Even so, the Fifth Circuit noted that Escajeda was free to raise that issue later in the district court proceeding.
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