Access to Justice

Cope v. Cogdill

In Cope v. Cogdill, the Supreme Court was asked to consider whether jail officials who responded unreasonably to a pretrial detainee’s attempted suicide should be granted qualified immunity and whether the judge-made doctrine of qualified immunity should be reformed.

Case Summary

In October 2017, pretrial detainee Derrek Monroe wrapped a 30-inch telephone cord around his neck and hung himself in his jail cell. The lone jailer on duty that morning, Jessie Laws, did not call 911, nor did he attempt to render aid. Instead, he called his supervisors and just watched as Monroe strangled himself.  By the time an ambulance was finally called, it was too late, and Monroe died the next day as a result. Laws’ failure to help Monroe was only one in a long string of failures by jail officials that led to Monroe’s death. In fact, jail officials repeatedly made decisions that were contrary to their training and official policies, including the decision to place him alone in a cell with a 30-inch phone cord, despite knowing that Monroe had already attempted to take his life and that long phone cords pose a major risk to suicidal detainees. Monroe’s mother, Patsy Cope, filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute that authorizes damages actions against state officials for constitutional violations. Cope asserts that the jail officials violated Monroe’s Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights, including the right to be protected from a known risk of suicide. A divided panel for the Fifth Circuit granted qualified immunity to all the jail officials in this case. Although the majority agreed that Monroe’s Due Process rights were violated, they concluded that Respondents did not have fair notice that their actions were unlawful because no factually identical case established the unconstitutionality of their conduct. Cope subsequently filed a petition for certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision.

On December 22, 2021, CAC filed an amicus brief in support of Cope’s certiorari petition, urging the Court to grant the petition, reverse the Fifth Circuit’s decision, and take this opportunity to eliminate or at least reform its qualified immunity doctrine which has no grounding in the text and history of Section 1983.

First, our brief explained why qualified immunity is at odds with the text and history of Section 1983. That statute, enacted in a landmark civil rights law of the Reconstruction era, was meant to deter constitutional violations by state and local officials by providing victims with a federal damages remedy. While Congress intended Section 1983 to incorporate certain well-known immunities that were recognized by the common law at the time, today’s qualified immunity rules bear no relationship to those historically established standards.

Moreover, these rules often make it impossible to hold officials accountable for their constitutional violations, as this case demonstrates. Indeed, the Fifth Circuit’s decision expands qualified immunity beyond what the Supreme Court has prescribed, wrongly preventing state officials from being held accountable even when they knowingly violate a person’s constitutional rights. Fifth Circuit precedent clearly establishes that officers who place a detainee exhibiting risk of suicide in conditions that they know to be inadequate are not entitled to qualified immunity. However, the Fifth Circuit held that those cases were not applicable because they concerned detainees who committed suicide using bedding, not phone cords. Under this reasoning, when a prisoner dies by suicide, there must be binding precedent involving the precise tool used by the prisoner before jail officials can be held accountable for their “unreasonable” actions. By requiring a factually identical case to show that the officers knew that their conduct was unlawful, the Fifth Circuit has constructed a nearly impenetrable barrier to liability.

Second, our brief demonstrated how qualified immunity now enables the very abuses of power that the Framers drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to prohibit, and that Section 1983 was meant to deter. After the Civil War, the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment sought to combat the “maladministration of justice” in the South, including violations by sheriffs and jailers. Congress later passed Section 1983 as a robust civil remedy to help individuals vindicate those constitutional rights when they were violated by government officials. Today, however, the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity doctrine allows those same types of violations to go unchecked, undermining the broad remedial aim of the law that Congress passed.

On June 30, 2022, the Supreme Court denied the petition for a writ of certiorari. Justice Sotomayor wrote an opinion dissenting from the Court’s denial, explaining that the Fifth Circuit erroneously granted qualified immunity and that, given the “uniquely troubling facts” of the case, she would have summarily reversed the Fifth Circuit’s decision.

Case Timeline

  • December 22, 2021

    CAC files amicus curiae brief

    Sup. Ct. Amicus Br.
  • June 30, 2022

    Supreme Court denies certiorari

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