Vol. 30 No. 11 U.S. Supreme Court “Ducks” ADA Issue Involving Police and Violent Mentally Ill Persons

On May 18, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 – 2 in City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, that police officers who forcibly entered the room of a woman with a mental disability and shot her are entitled to qualified immunity from a lawsuit seeking redress for the woman’s injuries, because there was no clearly established law requiring them to accommodate her mental illness.

The Supreme Court held that the two officers involved in the case “are entitled to qualified immunity from lia­bility for the injuries suffered by Sheehan. Public officials are im­mune from suit under 42 U. S. C. §1983 unless they have violated a statutory or constitutional right that was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct, an exacting standard that ‘gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments’. . . .”

In addition, the Court remanded the issue of whether the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires law enforcement officers “to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.” The Court said that the City did not raise that question and, therefore, it would not address that issue.

“San Francisco merely argues that Sheehan was not ‘qualified’ for an accommodation, because she ‘pose[d] a direct threat to the health or safety of others,’ which threat could not ‘be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices or procedures, or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services,’ This argument was not passed on by the court below.”  As a result, the Court remanded the matter for the jury to decide the issue.


Officers Reynolds and Holder responded to a group home for disturbed persons when informed that Sheehan was acting erratically and threatened to kill her social worker. The officers were asked to help escort Sheehan to a facility for temporary evaluation and treatment. When the officers first entered Sheehan’s room, she grabbed a knife and threatened to kill them. They retreated and closed the door. The officers were con­cerned about what Sheehan might do behind the closed door and, without considering if they could accommodate her disability, the of­ficers reentered her room. Sheehan, knife in hand, again confronted them. After pepper spray proved ineffective, the officers shot Sheehan multiple times.

Sheehan recovered and later sued petitioner San Francis­co for, among other things, violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) by arresting her without accommodat­ing her disability. She also sued petitioners Reynolds and Holder in their personal capacities under 42 U. S. C. §1983, claiming that they violated her Fourth Amendment rights by unlawfully seizing her.

The District Court granted summary judgment and concluded that officers making an arrest are not required to determine whether their actions would comply with the ADA before protecting them­selves and others and, also, that Reynolds and Holder did not violate the Constitution.

The Ninth Circuit held that the ADA did apply and that a jury must decide whether San Francisco should have accommodated Sheehan’s disability. The Ninth Circuit agreed “that exigent circumstances inform the reasonableness analysis under the ADA,

but concluded that it was for a jury to decide whether San Francisco should have accommodated Sheehan by, for instance, “respect[ing] her comfort zone, engag[ing] in non­threatening communications and us[ing] the passage of time to defuse the situation rather than precipitating a deadly confrontation.”

The Ninth Circuit also held that Reyn­olds and Holder are not entitled to qualified immunity because “it is clearly established that, absent an objective need for immediate en­try, officers cannot forcibly enter the home of an armed, mentally ill person who has been acting irrationally and has threatened anyone who enters.”

The panel held that “their initial entry into Sheehan’s room was lawful and that, after the officers opened the door for the second time, they reasonably used their firearms when the pepper spray failed to stop Sheehan’s advance. Nonetheless, the panel also held that a jury could find that the officers ‘provoked’ Sheehan by needlessly forcing that second confrontation.”

The ADA Issue

“Title II of the ADA commands that “no qualified indi­vidual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity. The first question on which we granted review asks whether this provision requires law enforce­ment officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.”

At the stage where the Supreme Court was asked to grant review, San Francisco explained that “resolving its ‘question presented’ ‘does not require a fact-intensive ‘reasonable accommodation’ inquiry,’ since ‘the only question for this Court to resolve is whether any accommodation of an armed and violent individual is reasonable or required under Title II of the ADA.’”

“Having persuaded us to grant certiorari, San Francisco chose to rely on a different argument than what it pressed below.  In its brief in this Court, San Francisco focuses on the statutory phrase ‘qualified individual,’ and a regulation declaring that Title II ‘does not require a public entity to permit an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, programs, or activities of that public entity when that individual poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.’”

But, the Court notes, “San Francisco never hinted at [this issue] in the Ninth Circuit. The Court does not ordinarily decide questions that were not passed on below. More than that, San Francisco’s new argument effectively concedes that the relevant provision of the ADA,may ‘requir[e] law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.”  (Emphasis in original.)

“Our decision not to decide whether the ADA applies to arrests is reinforced by the parties’ failure to address a related question: whether a public entity can be liable for damages under Title II for an arrest made by its police officers. Only public entities are subject to Title II, and the parties agree that such an entity can be held vicariously liable for money damages for the purposeful or deliberately indifferent conduct of its em­ployees. But we have never decided whether that is correct, and we decline to do so here, in the absence of adversarial briefing.”

Qualified Immunity for the Officers

“The second question presented is whether Reynolds and Holder can be held personally liable for the injuries that Sheehan suffered. We conclude they are entitled to quali­fied immunity. Public officials are immune from suit under 42 U. S. C. §1983 unless they have ‘violated a statutory or constitu­tional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.’ An officer ‘cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in [his] shoes would have understood that he was violating it,’meaning that ‘exist­ing precedent . . . placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.”

“In this case, although we disagree with the Ninth Cir­cuit’s ultimate conclusion on the question of qualified immunity, we agree with its analysis in many respects. For instance, there is no doubt that the officers did not violate any federal right when they opened Sheehan’s door the first time.”  Under the circumstances, a mentally disturbed, violent, person hiding in her room allowed their entry.  “[L]aw enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.”

“We also agree with the Ninth Circuit that after the officers opened Sheehan’s door the second time, their use of force was reasonable. Reynolds tried to subdue Sheehan with pepper spray, but Sheehan kept coming at the officers until she was ‘only a few feet from a cornered Officer Holder.’ At this point, the use of potentially deadly force was justified.”

“The real question, then, is whether, despite these dan­gerous circumstances, the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they decided to reopen Sheehan’s door rather than attempting to accommodate her disability.”  Unfortunately, the Court notes, this issue wasn’t adequately briefed by the attorneys representing the officers. But, “because this question has not been adequately briefed, we decline to [rule on the constitutional question presented].  Rather, we simply decide whether the officers’ failure to accommodate Sheehan’s illness violated clearly established law. It did not.”

“(Q)ualified immunity necessarily applies here because . . . competent officers could have believed that the second entry was justified under both continuous search and exigent circumstance ration­ales. Indeed, even if Reynolds and Holder misjudged the situation, Sheehan cannot ‘establish a Fourth Amend­ment violation based merely on bad tactics that result in a deadly confrontation that could have been avoided.’ Courts must not judge officers with ‘the 20/20 vision of hindsight.’”


The good news is that the Supreme Court did not rule that officers must provide “reasonable accommodations” when attempting to take a violent, mentally ill person into custody.  The bad news is that the matter is not resolved and will be heard by a jury.  As such, the question is still unanswered.

The other good news is that the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s denial of qualified immunity from civil liability as to the officers.  As explained by the Court, the issue was not clearly established at the time of the incident and, therefore, the officers were entitled to such immunity.  It can be anticipated, however, that at some point in time this issue will be decided but, as of now, it is still not clear.

It has become more and more common for law enforcement to be confronted with volatile situations involving dangerous, mentally ill persons. As we have seen in the instant case, “split second” decision must often be made.  As such, it behooves all of us to take time, before being confronted with such an incident, and plan on how it can be handled.  For instance, additional training for officers confronting such persons; and having a trained professional capable of dealing with the mentally ill, available to render assistance, when circumstances allow.

It is important to seek out advice and guidance from your agency’s legal counsel in analyzing the legal impact of court decisions – this is one which requires that assistance.  However, and as always, if you wish to discuss this case in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

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