Section 1983 law, on its face, seems pretty simple. Section 1983 is nothing more than a constitutional tort. The law of torts is simple. The challenge tort lawyers face is marshaling the facts. Rarely do tort laws trip over the law. Section 1983 law is complex, with many rules that even a well-educated legal observer wouldn't anticipate.
Thus, lawyers often litigate Section 1983 cases with embarrassing results. Today's example comes from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. See Padgett v. Wright, No. 08-16720 (9th Cir. Oct. 14, 2009) (here).
Some quick background: In nearly every tort case, a defendant may not appeal an order denying him summary judgment. Instead, the defendant must face trial. If the defendant loses at trial, the defendant may appeal. Section 1983 cases are an exception.
A denial of a defendant's motion for summary judgment is immediately appealable. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, (1985). Qualified immunity is not merely immunity from liability, it is immunity from suit. Thus, a defendant should not be forced to stand trial simply because a federal judge denied his motion for summary judgment. The immediately-appealable rule is one of many "quirks" of Section 1983 law.
In Padgett v. Wright, the defendant lost at summary judgment. His case proceeded to trial. He lost. Nevertheless, his lawyer appealed the denial of the motion for summary judgment. The panel quickly showed why the lawyer who appealed the denial of summary judgment was out of his league:
Wright’s interest in immediately appealing the district court’s denial of qualified immunity was an interest in avoiding “stand[ing] trial or fac[ing] the other burdens of litigation.” Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 526. Because the trial has already occurred, there is no longer any compelling reason for us to deviate from the general rule preventing us from reviewing denials of summary judgment. “Since the appeal was taken before the trial, the only ruling that it could challenge was the ruling that [Wright] must stand trial. . . . Since all that was atstake in the appeal was whether [Wright] must stand trial, thetrial mooted the appeal by eliminating the stake.” Chan v.Wodnicki, 67 F.3d 137, 140 (7th Cir. 1995).Slip op. at *14560. Nevertheless, the panel did not sanction the defendant for filing a frivolous appeal:
The Padgetts ask us to sanction Wright for filing a frivolous appeal. Fed. R. App. P. 38 (“[I]f a court of appeals determines that an appeal is frivolous, it may, after a separately filed motion or notice from the court and reasonable opportunity to respond, award just damages and single or double costs to the appellee.”). Because their request was not separately filed, we deny the request. See Higgins v. Vortex Fishing Sys., Inc., 379 F.3d 701, 709 (9th Cir. 2004) (“Arequest made in an appellate brief does not satisfy Rule 38. . . .” (quoting State of Cal. Emp. Dev. v. Taxel (In re Del Mission Ltd.), 98 F.3d 1147, 1154 (9th Cir. 1996))).Id. at *14561. The Court of Appeals should have sanctioned the defendant for wasting its time. The Ninth Circuit is a busy court. It takes well over a year to issue its rulings when deciding meritorious appeals. Frivolous appeals not only harm the Court. Frivolous appeals harm the litigants with properly-filed appeals who must wait in line behind a frivolous appeal.
I suspect that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (especially with Frank Easterbrook on the panel) would have been so relaxed. The Seventh Circuit has the right approach to sanctions. Appeals are serious business. Don't waste the Court's time. Don't waste the time of litigants with invalid appeals. Everyone suffers when frivolous appeals are filed.