When Court Powers Supersede the Will of the Parties
On May 18, 2018, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment on an issue raised sua sponte by the court, despite the fact that the parties had negotiated and agreed that the defendant would not seek summary judgment on the issue.
On December 22, 2011, the plaintiff in the case on appeal was shot three times by defendant Officer Silvio Macias following a traffic stop, resulting in permanent physical disability and paralysis. Plaintiff filed an action in federal court, alleging that the officer violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 through the use of excessive force. The parties negotiated a partial dismissal of some of the claims in the complaint, and the officer agreed not to seek summary judgment on the remaining claims.
During a pretrial status conference, the district court sua sponte raised the issue of qualified immunity, and ordered an evidentiary hearing regarding the officer’s entitlement to qualified immunity. During the hearing the court ruled that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity, and granted summary judgment in the officer’s favor. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the district court impermissibly raised the defense of qualified immunity sua sponte, and that the record reflected genuine issues of material fact regarding the officer’s entitlement to qualified immunity.
The Ninth Circuit held that the district court did not err in raising the issue of qualified immunity sua sponte in this case, as district courts hold a general power to enter summary judgment sua sponte. The court additionally held that the officer’s agreement not to seek summary judgment on the remaining issues (including the issue of qualified immunity) did not preclude the court from raising the issue of qualified immunity itself. The court reasoned that since it was raised in the officer’s answer and never abandoned, qualified immunity remained at issue in the case, and the district court was within its power to raise the issue itself.
The question of whether a court can raise issues sua sponte for summary judgment, even where there has been an agreement not to seek summary judgment on those issues, has been clearly answered. However, the question of whether this decision will affect parties’ willingness to enter into pretrial negotiations, knowing that the court can effectively override their agreements, is still up for debate.