Qualified immunity hovers over any civil rights lawsuit brought under Section 1983, the civil rights statute that allows you to enforce the Constitution against government officials. Qualified immunity is what it sounds like: government officials are immune from suit, but that immunity is qualified as it does not always apply. The general rule is that if the state of the law was not clearly established at the time of the civil rights action, the government official cannot be sued for damages. We know whether the state of the law was clearly established by looking at the case law as decided by the Supreme Court and the local Court of Appeals. Qualified immunity, however, does not stand in the way of an injunction to force the government to comply with the law. You can get an injunction but not recover damages in these esoteric cases.
This distinction between immunity from suit for damages and the simultaneous availability of a Section 1983 suit for an injunction played out in a civil rights action against SUNY New Paltz, resolved by Judge Kahn a few weeks ago.
The case is Holmes v. Poskanzer, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13545 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2008). Holmes was the Student Government president who was suspended from campus after a confrontation with a college employee, who filed a criminal charges against him. The College has to provide students with a due process hearing before it suspends or expels a student, and Holmes was provided with such a hearing. But these hearings are not like other hearings. In the SUNY systen, for reasons having to do with administrative efficiency, the student has no right to counsel. After Holmes lost the hearing and the suspension took effect, he brought a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, seeking a court order allowing him to return to school because the hearing violated due process.
In January 2007, the Northern District of New York granted the injunction because, although college students generally don't have the right to counsel at these administrative hearings, since Holmes was facing criminal charges in the local Justice court, he was entitled to counsel at the hearing to protect his interests. That decision is reported at 2007 U.S. Dist. 3216 (N.Y.N.Y. Jan. 3, 2007). As summarized by Judge Kahn, "in the specific situation described by the Complaint, in which students are 'simultaneously facing possible university expulsion and pending state criminal charges,' those concerned with self-incrimination should be allowed to have counsel present in a consultative role to avoid a violation of due process. To meet the requirements of due process, a university disciplinary proceeding need not take on the trappings of a trial and the right to counsel described above need not include the traditional functions of a trial attorney. However, the refusal to allow counsel to accompany and advise Plaintiffs, in the situation alleged by the Complaint, could assert a violation of Plaintiff's due process rights."
That did not end the case, though. The State next moved to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim, primarily arguing that the defendants are protected by qualified immunity. Here's where the interplay between injunctive relief and monetary relief intersect. Although qualified immunity does not prevent the court from issuing an injunction to remedy illegal behavior, since public officials do not have to stand suit for monetary damages claims when the state of the law is unclear, they can invoke qualified immunity for the non-injunctive claims.
That is what happened here. In Judge Kahn's order granting the injunction, he ruled that the Due Process Clause prohibits the State from disciplining a student without the right to counsel if he is facing criminal charges. He did not cite Second Circuit case law for this. Instead, he cited cases from the Eastern and Northern Districts of New York, Crowley v. United States Merch. Marine Acad., 985 F. Supp. 292 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) and Donohue v. Baker, 976 F. Supp. 136, 147 (N.D.N.Y. 1997). The Eastern and Northern Districts are wonderful courts, but they are not appellate courts and their rulings are not binding on other judges. As Judge Kahn reasoned, "there is no case law in the Second Circuit holding that a specific situation required the presence of counsel at a school disciplinary proceeding to satisfy due process. Accordingly, it would not be clear to a reasonable university employee that the procedures in place were insufficient and Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity with regard to this issue."
So, while the law in this regard is not crystal clear, Holmes won the injunction because some cases entitled him to counsel at the hearing. But the unclear state of the law in this area also means that Holmes cannot sue these officials for damages incurred in missing a semester of college. And that's how qualified immunity can get you an injunction, but not damages.