Is It Law Or Is It Fact? 7th Circuit Grapples With Jurisdiction In Qualified Immunity Case

Andrew Sallenger suffered from mental illness. He resisted an arrest and died during the altercation with police. His estate sued the police under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, including a claim for use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The police officers lost their summary judgment motion that was based on qualified immunity. Then they appealed. The estate moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction. It argued that the appeal sought review of the district court’s findings of fact, impermissible under the collateral order doctrine.

Denials of summary judgment motions based on qualified immunity typically are treated as final judgments and are immediately appealable. This exception to the final judgment rule exists because of “the urgency of denials of qualified immunity.” However, the exception is limited by another rule: “[T]he Court of Appeals may consider only issues of law and may not consider any case which raises a genuine issue of material fact on appeal.”

In Sallenger’s case, district court found that questions of material fact existed about whether excessive force was used, and denied the summary judgment motion. But on appeal, the police officers accepted the district court’s version of the facts for summary judgment purposes. The court thus ruled that it had appellate jurisdiction because it could “decide qualified immunity as a matter of law without review of the district court’s findings of facts.”

The entire case, Sallenger v. Oakes, No. 05-3470 (1/10/07), is available by clicking here.