Qualified Immunity

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Qualified Immunity

Qualified Immunity


42 U.S.C. §1983, provides in pertinent part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State … subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States … to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and its laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, … for redress.

Thus, pursuant to
42 U.S.C. §1983, in order to establish a claim a plaintiff must prove that person was deprived of a federal statutory or constitutional right by a person acting under color of state law. G
omez v. Toledo, 446
U.S. 635, 640 (1980). There is no dispute that the officers and the NeptuneCity Police Department acted under color of law in the instant case. As to police officers, however, … [B]are allegations of malice should not suffice to subject government officials either to the cost of trial or to the burdens of broad-reaching discovery. We therefore hold that government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

Reliance on the objective reasonableness of an official’s conduct, as measured by reference to clearly established law, should avoid excessive disruption of government and permit the resolution of many insubstantial claims on summary judgment.
Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 817-818

Schneider v. Simonini, it was held that police officers “alleged to have violated an arrestee’s well-established constitutional or statutory rights may be exonerated from civil liability by invoking the doctrine of qualified immunity.”
Schneider v. Simonini, 163 N.J. 336, 354 (2000). It has been held that the defense of qualified immunity is a legal issue to be decided by the Court.
Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987). Qualified immunity “is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability and it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial.”
Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). Therefore, it is submitted that “[f]or that reason, a defendant’s entitlement to qualified immunity is a question of law to be decided as early in the proceedings as possible …”
Wildoner v. Borough of Ramsey, 162 N.J. 375, 387 (2000).

The United States Supreme Court considered “the question of the degree of immunity accorded a defendant police officer in a damages action under
U.S.C. §1983 when it is alleged that the officer caused the plaintiff to be unconstitutionally arrested … [without] probable cause.”
Malley v.
Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 337 (1986). It was held that the defense of qualified immunity [P]rovides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law … Under the Harlow standard … an allegation of malice is not sufficient to defeat immunity if the defendant acted in an objectively reasonable manner … Defendants will not be immune if, on an objective basis, it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue, but if officers of reasonable competence could disagree on this issue, immunity should be recognized. Id. at 341.

It is well established that a police officer defendant in a civil rights case based upon an alleged violation of the Fourth Amendment is entitled to qualified immunity.
Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 643 (1987). In particular, a police officer who applies for a warrant is immune if a reasonable officer in the defendant’s position could have believed that there was probable cause to support the application, even if it is later determined that probable cause did not exist. Id.

Groman v. Manalapan, the Third Circuit reversed the district court’s granting of summary judgment as to Officer Kirkland because there was a factual dispute about the circumstances which purportedly supported the defendant’s basis for probable cause to arrest the plaintiff.
Groman v.
Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 634-635 (3rd Cir. 1995). The Court held that a jury could decide that Groman did not hit Kirkland which would thus eliminate the probable cause to arrest based on aggravated assault. However, the court specifically found that summary judgment was appropriate as to Officers Trembow and Vanderwell who relied on the information supplied by Groman: This reasoning does not apply to Officers Trembow and Vanderwell. Summary judgment is appropriate as to them because the uncontested evidence demonstrates that Kirkland told each of them that Groman had punched her. This is sufficient for them to have believed probable cause existed, and also insulates them from plaintiff’s claim of false imprisonment***. Id. at n. 10 (citation omitted).

It is most appropriate to dispose of a case in which the defendant asserts a qualified immunity defense by summary judgment.
Sherwood v. Mulvihill, 113
F.3d 396, 399 (3d Cir. 1997). Furthermore, where such a defense is raised in a motion for summary judgment “the plaintiff bears the initial burden of showing that the defendant’s conduct violated some clearly established statutory or constitutional right.” Id. (citations omitted). Only if the plaintiff carries this initial burden must the defendant then demonstrate that “no genuine issue of material fact remains as to the ‘objective reasonableness’ of defendant’s belief in the lawfulness of his actions.” Id. (citations omitted). An officer who reasonably (but mistakenly) believes that his conduct in arresting plaintiff was reasonable is entitled to qualified immunity.
Green v. City of Paterson 971 F.Supp. 891, 901

Additionally, qualified immunity applies to both state and federal constitutional law claims.
Lloyd v. Borough of Stone Harbor, 179 N.J.
Super. 496, 517 (1981). “…[I]mmunities of municipalities and their officials sued directly under our (New Jersey) Constitution are identical to those provided by federal law.” Id. at 517. Consequently, in the case at bar, the defendants Neptune City and the Neptune City Police Department are entitled to qualified immunity under both the plaintiff’s state and federal constitutional law claims.

Qualified immunity applies to Fourth Amendment wrongful taking claims. In
Hunter v. Bryant, the Plaintiff sued Secret Service Agents, the United States Department of the Treasury, and the Director of the Secret Service alleging that the Secret Service Agents violated his Fourth, Firth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment Rights and sought recovery under the Federal Tort Claims Act after he was arrested by the Agents for making threats against the President of the United States.
Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 226
(1991). The Court found that the Secret Service Agents were entitled to qualified immunity because “a reasonable officer could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest the plaintiff, in light of clearly established law and the information the [arresting] officers possessed.” Id. at 227 citing
Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635 (1987). Further, “law enforcement officials who ‘reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present’ are entitled to immunity.” Ibid.

Abbott v. Latshaw, the plaintiff sued police officers as well as others under a 42 U.S.C. §1983 cause of action claiming that the police officers “violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process by using the authority vested in … law enforcement officers to deprive him of property without prior notice and opportunity to be heard,” after they seized his van.
Abbott v. Latshaw, 164 F.3d 141, 145 (1998). The Court found that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they “confined their conduct to the routine police procedures of checking the vehicle registration, and cannot be said to have used state action to deprive [the plaintiff] of his due process rights.” Id. at 147. Accordingly, qualified immunity applies to Fourth Amendment wrongful taking claims.

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