U.S. Supreme Court Sides with Orrick Appellate Team in Important Test of Qualified Immunity for Government Officials

November.02.2020

In the first decision of its kind in at least 16 years, the U.S. Supreme Court today backed the arguments of our appellate team in a ruling that reinforced the limits of qualified immunity for government officials when their conduct is so egregious that any reasonable official would have known it was unconstitutional.

In Taylor v. Riojas, the Court, in a per curiam decision, ruled in favor of Texas prisoner Trent Taylor, who challenged qualified immunity for correctional officers who locked him in “shockingly unsanitary” cells for days. An Orrick team led by partner Kelsi Corkran and associates Tiffany Wright and Elizabeth Cruikshank filed a petition for certiorari asking the Supreme Court to overturn a Fifth Circuit ruling that extended qualified immunity to shield the officers from Taylor’s Eighth Amendment claims, even though the lower court found the conditions—being forced to reside in cells that were covered in feces and exceedingly cold—did in fact constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court agreed with our arguments, concluding: “Confronted with the particularly egregious facts of this case, any reasonable officer should have realized that Taylor’s conditions of confinement offended the Constitution.”

Significantly, the Supreme Court relied on a 2002 case, Hope v. Pelzer, which established that qualified immunity can be overcome if the unconstitutionality of the officials’ conduct is “obvious.” The Taylor decision is noteworthy, as it reflects just the second time the Court has invoked the Hope doctrine and reaffirms the principle that officials are not entitled to qualified immunity if their conduct is obviously unconstitutional. In addition, after a broad push this past term among Supreme Court advocates to encourage the Court to reconsider qualified immunity more broadly, the Taylor decision could mark a shift in the Court’s expansive approach to qualified immunity for government officials.

The ruling, covered by The Wall Street Journal, American Lawyer, Bloomberg and other media outlets, permits Taylor’s Eighth Amendment claims to proceed against prison officials. The ruling was also the focus of a feature article in Law360

In addition to Kelsi, Tiffany and Elizabeth, the team on the case includes Orrick Senior Counsel Tom Bondy and co-counsel Sam Weiss with Rights Behind Bars.