The Role of Precedent in Establishing Immunity
In contrast, the Fourth Circuit granted qualified immunity to a defendant based on a lack of sufficiently analogous precedent in Rish v. Johnson 131 F.3d 1092 (4th Cir. 1997). Federal prison inmates claimed that the prison's failure to provide them with protective equipment to safeguard them against infectious diseases while they cleaned blood, feces, and urine from prison housing and medical areas violated their clearly established Eighth Amendment rights. The plaintiffs alleged that other prisoners were infected with HIV and Hepatitis B, and that their work involved risk of contact between those inmates' bodily fluids and the plaintiffs' unprotected skin. The plaintiffs also cleaned areas which housed patients in mental seclusion who sometimes threw hazardous bodily fluids. The court held that the alleged conduct failed to defeat qualified immunity because there existed no case law clearly establishing a constitutional right in this type of situation. This is a rather surprising outcome because the Supreme Court at the time of the alleged violations had already established that a prisoner's Eighth Amendment rights are violated when a prison official acts with deliberate indifference to known, substantial risks of serious bodily harm. See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976) (ruling that a deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of prisoners is cruel and unusual punishment).
When determining whether a defendant violated a clearly established law or right, case law must also be analyzed. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002). In that case, a prisoner was handcuffed to a hitching post for seven hours, shirtless, in the Alabama sun, and not given water or bathroom breaks. He brought a § 1983 action against the guards for a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and they claimed qualified immunity. The federal district court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted the guards immunity, holding the guards could not have reasonable known that what they were doing was a violation of the prisoner's rights. The Supreme Court reversed, denying immunity protection. The Court examined the Eleventh Circuit's own case law where it established a standard for determining what constitutes an Eighth Amendment violation. Thus, the appropriate way to analyze a unique fact pattern is to apply case law. Here, case law implied that using a hitching post in such a way was a constitutional violation and although the issue had never arisen, the guards could not successfully claim they did not know their actions violated the prisoner's constitutional rights.
Examples of case decisions that have found qualified immunity: The Supreme Court acknowledged qualified immunity for state hospital administrators in O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563 (1975). In another case, a Kansas federal court granted summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds to two staff members of a state mental health hospital. The court found the staff members were entitled to qualified immunity in a § 1983 action filed on behalf of a patient who was involuntarily committed and died as a result of suffocation from being restrained. The officials were exercising a discretionary duty and were doing what they believed to be reasonable at the time. As a result, damages were denied. Unzueta v. Steele, 291 F. Supp. 2d 1230 (D. Kan. 2003).