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SCOTUSwiki Preview: Haywood v. Drown

In advance of today’s argument in Haywood v. Drown (07-10374), Stanford student David Owens prepared this write-up of the case for SCOTUSwiki.

Pursuant to New York Correction Law § 24, New York courts lack jurisdiction under state or federal law to entertain civil actions seeking money damages against Department of Corrections (DOC) officers, which means these courts cannot entertain causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against DOC officials. Today in No. 07-10374, Haywood v. Drown, the Court will consider whether this limitation violates the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.


This case stems from petitioner Keith Haywood’s two Section 1983 actions in New York courts against DOC employees. These actions followed two guilty verdicts in DOC administrative hearings stemming from incidents involving DOC officials—one related to an alleged physical altercation, and another for improper mail solicitation. Haywood filed his suits in the state supreme court (New York’s lowest trial court of general jurisdiction), where both sets of defendants moved to dismiss the complaints for lack of jurisdiction based on Section 24, which provides in pertinent part that: (1) “no civil action shall be brought in any court of the state, except by the attorney general on behalf of the state, against any officer or employee of the department [of corrections], in his personal capacity, for damages arising out of any act done or the failure to perform any act within the scope of employment”; and (2) “any claim for damages arising out of . . . the scope of employment . . . shall be brought and maintained in the court of claims as a claim against the state.” The trial court agreed and dismissed the complaints.

The state’s intermediate appellate court affirmed, as did the state’s court of last resort, the New York Court of Appeals, by a vote of four to three. The majority of the Court of Appeals first interpreted the Supremacy Clause as prohibiting a state from refusing “to entertain a suit for the sole reason that the cause of action arises under federal law” and thereby “maintain[ing] an equilibrium between state and federal causes of action.” Thus, a Supremacy Clause violation cannot occur when “there is no discrimination against the federal claim in favor of similar state claims.” Thus, the majority held, Section 24 merely creates a “neutral jurisdictional barrier” to all damages claims, both state and federal, in state courts against correction officers and does not violate the Supremacy Clause. Nor did it the fact that a plaintiff can instead sue the state, pursuant to a waiver of sovereign immunity, in the Court of Claims alter the analysis, as “it was Congress that decided to exempt states as responsible parties from the purview of the federal statute.” (This claim, on its face, raises an interesting issue because it was in fact the Supreme Court, rather than Congress, which held that States are not “persons” for purposes of § 1983; relatedly, a federal statute seeking to deem states as “persons” would certainly face serious Eleventh Amendment difficulties.)

Taking aim at the majority’s analysis, the three dissenters vigorously argued that Section 24 has two adverse effects. First, it burdens the litigation of § 1983 actions by preventing state courts from adjudicating claims for money damages, even though those courts have jurisdiction over the parties and the type of claim brought. Notably, by shifting claims from employees to the state in the Court of Claims, this adverse effect is also in tension with the text of § 1983, which provides a remedy against “every person” who, under the color of law, violates a person’s rights. Second, the statute immunizes only a select group of state employees from § 1983 damages.

Thus, the dissent contended that “if you strip away the veneer of the majority’s arguments . . . [Section 24] . . . is not a neutral jurisdictional barrier to a particular type of claim” and is thus not a “valid excuse” for this jurisdictional limitation. Haywood filed a petition for certiorari, which was granted on June 16, 2008.

Petition for Certiorari

The petition for certiorari advanced three primary reasons for granting the writ, all of which expand on a key theme: Section 24 was enacted because the New York legislature regards Section 1983 claims against corrections officers as “bad policy.”

First, the petition alleges that the New York Court of Appeals decision is in “severe tension” with the Supreme Court’s Supremacy Clause jurisprudence as outlined in Felder v. Casey, Howlett v. Rose, and Martinez v. California. This tension emerges because Section 24 is essentially an “immunity statute” that precludes suits against DOC officials, and, as such, runs contrary to Howlett, which, citing Martinez, indicated that “a State cannot immunize an official from liability for injuries compensable under federal law.” Importantly, Howlett and Felder acknowledge that states may limit jurisdiction when they have a “valid excuse for doing so,” which includes “neutral rules” of procedural administration, but Haywood urges that Section 24 fails this neutrality test because the law, in effect, has a consequence of baring jurisdiction over some Section 1983 claims based on the official, not the subject matter. Neutral subject matter jurisdictional rules, however, cannot discriminate in such fashion, making this a Supremacy Clause violation.

Second, the petition emphasizes the gravity of the issue with respect to the sixty-thousand-plus individuals currently confined in New York’s seventy state prisons.

Finally, the petition urges the Court to take the case because Section 24 “provides an ideal template” for states that disagree with congressional policy goals to close their courts to federal remedies designed to achieve those goals.

Opposing certiorari, the New York Attorney General’s office, representing the DOC employees, began by arguing that this case was insignificant because there is no circuit split on the question presented.

The State further argued that two substantive reasons militated against granting certiorari. First, New York prisoners are still able to obtain “full redress” for civil rights violations, either by filing in federal court (where most § 1983 claims are filed) or by bringing suits against the officers relating to actions taken outside the officers’ “scope of employment” (as defined by state law). Moreover, allowing suits founded on state constitutional law alone to proceed against the state directly, which would indemnify the officers acting within the scope of their employment anyway, is sufficient because the state constitutional provisions “generally provide protections at least as broad as their counterparts in the United States Constitution.”

Second, the State argued that under Howlett the Supremacy Clause permits states to decline jurisdiction over federal claims when they have a “valid excuse,” which includes a “neutral rule governing the administration of the courts.” Section 24 is such a valid excuse because it does not “discriminate” against federal claims, but instead furthers the state’s legitimate interest in “minimizing the effect of prisoner damages claims against corrections employees, many of which are frivolous and vexatious.”

Merits Filings

The merits filings pick up where the cert.-stage filings left off. Haywood again emphasizes that New York enacted Section 24 because it regards § 1983 as “bad policy,” while the State emphasizes the tradition of state control of state courts and its ability to limit jurisdiction over its courts through “neutral rules.”

Haywood advances four specific arguments in support of his claim that Section 24 violates the Supremacy Clause. First and foremost, he argues that Section 24 was intended to prevent suits against DOC officials. Emphasizing that Section 24’s historical antecedent was, in fact, an immunity statute, he contends that the State has acted to “cloak its prison employees with absolute immunity from private damages suits for their official conduct, regardless of whether their conduct violates the law.” To this end, Haywood urges, it is irrelevant that federal courts remain open to adjudicate § 1983 claims; this fact has no bearing on whether the state’s restrictions violate the Supremacy Clause.

Second, the availability of the state-law alternative in the Court of Claims does not remedy the Supremacy Clause violation. Here, Haywood emphasizes the differences between the federal and state remedies: although punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and jury trials are available in the former, they are precluded under the latter. Further, suits under Section 1983 are subject to a three-year statute of limitations, while the state remedy has a very short ninety-day notice provision.

Third, Haywood takes aim at the New York court system, arguing that the State’s “gerrymandering of its jurisdiction to exclude specific federal claims” is unconstitutional. Again relying on Howlett, Haywood argues that states cannot skirt congressional directives simply by invoking the word “jurisdiction” when, as here, the New York Constitution provides state supreme courts with “general original jurisdiction in law and equity.” These courts of general jurisdiction, therefore, typically hear similar (i.e., tort) claims arising under § 1983 and, anomalously, are permitted to hear actions against state corrections officials when the claim is for declaratory or injunctive relief alone. Thus, in a suit seeking both structural reform and damages arising out of a single incident, a plaintiff would be required to file her § 1983 claim for injunctive relief in state court but would be precluded from seeking damages from the employee in the same court; instead, the action would be required to proceed against the state in the limited fashion provided by the Court of Claims.

Finally, and related to the broad jurisdiction of the New York supreme courts generally, Haywood argues that although Felder permits states to limit federal claims in courts via “neutral and uniformly applicable” rules of procedure unrelated to “any particular substantive cause of action,” Section 24 fails this neutrality standard. In particular, it applies only to a particular group of state employees, and is codified with the state’s substantive laws governing the Department of Corrections rather than in the rules of court procedure. Haywood again returns to his “bad policy” theme, asserting that because Section 24 reflects the legislature’s disagreement with the substance of § 1983 remedies, it is not “neutralized” by the fact that it applies to civil rights claims arising under state law and federal law. Instead, Haywood alleges, the State’s rule turns the “supreme law of the land into a menu from which states may freely pick and choose, depending on their own priorities and views” – which, on its face, violates the Supremacy Clause.

The State responds to these attacks with three broad arguments. First, the State grounds Section 24 in state sovereignty, emphasizing that an “essential attribute” of this sovereignty is the “authority to establish and regulate the jurisdiction of state courts.” One potentially interesting tactical maneuver to note is that the State begins its argument with an implicit attempt to court Justice Kennedy’s vote by quoting his concurrence from a federalism decision, and relying upon a decision he authored, Alden v. Maine, as the basis of its sovereignty argument. With a discussion of Alden, the Federalist Papers, and even a cameo by the Tenth Amendment, the State contends that Section 24 is an extension of this power and regulates the jurisdiction of New York courts to further legitimate interests in sound judicial administration.

In its second argument, the State turns to the interests in “sound judicial administration” underlying Section 24 and argues that it is not – as Haywood alleges – an “immunity” provision. Instead, it merely regulates the subject matter jurisdiction of the state supreme courts and assigns adjudication of these claims to another court, where a remedy is available in the form of a damages action against the State. Doing so furthers the State’s interest in sound judicial administration because prisoners’ claims are both numerous and frequently frivolous and the Rule minimizes the “disruptive effect” of damages suits against correction employees. Tucked within this sound administration argument is a point which may be contentious: “A damages action against the State is the functional equivalent of a damages action against an employee who is indemnified by the State.”

Third, the State essentially responds to Haywood’s arguments regarding “neutral rules” by arguing that Section 24 does not discriminate against the federal claim because state law damages claims against DOC officials must also follow this procedure; therefore, the State reasons, Haywood cannot rely on Howlett and Felder, which are distinguishable. In short, much of the argument comes down to whether, and to what extent, the Court thinks Section 24 is analogous to the impermissible rules struck in these two important cases.

Finally, two amicus briefs were filed, both on behalf of Haywood—one by a group of constitutional law and federal jurisdiction professors (including David Shapiro of Harvard and Dean Erwin Chemerinsky) and another by a group of public interest groups and law school clinics. Both substantially track the arguments made by Haywood regarding whether Section 24 is a “valid excuse” because it is a “neutral rule” under Howlett, but they also provide a greater emphasis on the background assumptions of federal jurisdiction and the limitations of state sovereignty, responding, at least in part, to arguments made to this effect by the State.