Friday, February 28, 2014

Sex offender has no "stigma plus" claim

Are there any civil rights cases that are harder to win than "stigma plus" cases under the Fourteenth Amendment? There are some, but few. My memory may be off, but I don't think the Second Circuit has sustained a "stigma plus" claim in years. This case fails as well.

The case is Balentine v. Tremblay, a summary order decided on February 11. Stigma plus claims allege that the government defamed you in such a way that you were deprived of a tangible interest, like a property or liberty interest, without due process. It often happens when someone is fired from a government job in a manner that the employee cannot find other work (like if was accused of ethical breaches). As the Second Circuit (Cabranes, Carney and Droney) reminds us, "reputation alone, apart from some more tangible interests, is not sufficient to invoke the procedural protection of the Due Process Clause."

Stigma-plus cases are frustrating for civil rights lawyers who wants to ride the white horse into federal court on behalf of someone who got screwed by the government. And these plaintiffs can be sympathetic, having been defamed and unable to find work because of that defamation. Other stigma-plus cases say that the loss of the right to a public education can meet this standard. The plaintiff in this case is not sympathetic, though. He is a convicted sex offender from New York who moved to Vermont. He sued because the state posted  his face on the "high risk" online sex offender registry without the notice or opportunity to be heard on whether he had successfully reintegrated into the community.

This mistake may have defamed plaintiff, so that satisfies the "stigma" prong of the "stigma plus" case. But there is no "plus" here. "Balentine was properly classified as a sex offender subject to the accompanying registration and notification requirements, and he does not claim that Vermont wrongfully imposed any substantive legal burden on him. Moreover, his alleged reputational damage resulting in the loss of private employment, humiliation, and embarrassment are inadequate to satisfy the 'plus' requirement." While plaintiff says he was denied the opportunity to be heard prior to the online registry posting, that denial does not count as a "plus," either. That is not the deprivation of a tangible interest under Supreme Court authority.

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