from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 5:14-cv-00750-AKK
JORDAN and JULIE CARNES, Circuit Judges, and VINSON, [*] District Judge.
VINSON, DISTRICT JUDGE:
appeal centers on the level of particularity that is required
for qualified immunity analysis in a First Amendment civil
rights case. Lynda Gaines, a public school teacher, filed
this Section 1983 action against the school superintendent,
E. Casey Wardynski, Ph.D., alleging that she was denied a
promotion in violation of her First Amendment right to free
speech and intimate association. Dr. Wardynski moved for
summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that he was
entitled to qualified immunity. The district court disagreed
and denied the motion. Dr. Wardynski then filed this
interlocutory appeal, and we granted oral argument.
the qualified immunity doctrine, government officials
performing discretionary functions are immune not just from
liability, but from suit, unless the conduct which is the
basis for suit violates clearly established federal statutory
or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would
have known." Sanders v. Howze, 177 F.3d 1245,
1249 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald,
457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Qualified immunity protects all
but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate
federal law; it does not extend to one who knew or reasonably
should have known that his or her actions would violate the
plaintiff's federal rights. Jones v. Fransen,
857 F.3d 843, 851 (11th Cir. 2017) (citations and quotation
this year, the Supreme Court observed:
In the last five years, this Court has issued a number of
opinions reversing federal courts in qualified immunity
cases. The Court has found this necessary both because
qualified immunity is important to society as a whole, and
because as an immunity from suit, qualified immunity is
effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to
Today, it is again necessary to reiterate the longstanding
principle that "clearly established law" should not
be defined at a high level of generality. As this Court
explained decades ago, the clearly established law must be
"particularized" to the facts of the case.
Otherwise, plaintiffs would be able to convert the rule of
qualified immunity into a rule of virtually unqualified
liability simply by alleging violation of extremely abstract
White v. Pauly, ___ U.S. ___, 137 S.Ct. 548, 551-52
(2017) (multiple citations, some quotation marks, and
the district court here defined "clearly established
law" at too high a level of generality, we reverse.
time relevant to this case, Gaines was a teacher in the
Huntsville City School System, and her father, Robert
Harrison, was a local county commissioner. On May 1, 2013,
the Huntsville Times published an article in which
Harrison made critical comments about the Huntsville City
Board of Education (the Board) and its Superintendent, Dr.
Wardynski, regarding district rezoning efforts and plans to
end federal monitoring under a long-standing desegregation
order. The complaint does not allege that Gaines
shared any of her father's criticisms or that Dr.
Wardynski thought she did. Nevertheless, very shortly after
the article was published, Gaines alleges---and for purposes
of our analysis we accept as true---that she was denied a
promotion to one of three potential teaching
positions. She subsequently brought this lawsuit
against Dr. Wardynski, alleging that he violated her First
Amendment rights by (i) retaliating against her in violation
of her right to freedom of speech (based on what her father
told the newspaper), and (ii) retaliating against her in
violation of her right to freedom of intimate association
(based on her close relationship with her father).
to trial, Dr. Wardynski filed a motion for summary judgment
in which he argued, in part, that he was entitled to
qualified immunity as it was not "clearly
established" that it violated the First Amendment to
take an adverse action against a public employee because a
family member had engaged in protected speech. The district
court denied the motion by written order and set the case for
a jury trial. Dr. Wardynski filed this interlocutory appeal
and moved the district court to stay the trial pending the
outcome of this appeal. The district court summarily denied
the motion to stay, saying only that the appeal was
frivolous. Dr. Wardynski then filed an emergency motion in
this court to stay the approaching trial date, and a previous
panel granted the motion.
entitled to qualified immunity, the defendant must first
establish that he was acting within the scope of his
discretionary authority. Maddox v. Stephens, 727
F.3d 1109, 1120 (11th Cir. 2013). Once that is shown (and it
is unchallenged here), the burden shifts to the plaintiff to
establish that qualified immunity is not appropriate.
Id. To do that, the plaintiff must demonstrate
(taking all the facts in the light most favorable to her) the
following two things: (1) that the defendant violated her
constitutional rights, and (2) that, at the time of the
violation, those rights were "clearly established . . .
in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad
general proposition[.]" See Saucier v. Katz,
533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001), overruled, in part, on other
grounds by Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009).
"We may decide these issues in either order, but, to
survive a qualified-immunity defense, [the plaintiff] must
satisfy both showings." Jones, 857 F.3d at 851.
purposes of this appeal, we will accept as true that Dr.
Wardynski passed Gaines over for promotion because her father
had criticized him and the Board about a matter of public
concern and that doing so violated her First Amendment rights
(the first prong). See, e.g., Adler v. Pataki, 185
F.3d 35, 41-45 (2d Cir. 1999) (holding that retaliatory
action taken solely because of the protected speech of a
close family member is actionable under the First Amendment).
This case turns ...