HERNANDEZ v. COOK COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE (February 24, 2011)

Several Cook County Jail inmates escaped in February of 2006. Jail authorities immediately suspected that the escapees had inside help. One guard admitted his involvement. Six additional guards came under suspicion. Internal and criminal investigations were conducted. Several of the guards were suspended with pay. The guards also claimed they were treated harshly during the investigation and discouraged from contacting the union or an attorney. Ultimately, one guard was suspended for five days and two left the department. Administrative charges were dropped against the other three. The six guards brought suit against the Sheriff's office alleging a violation of their First Amendment rights, and included state law intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment claims. They claimed that the investigation was in retaliation for their safety complaints (the plaintiffs allegedly complained about security and overcrowding problems in the jails) and political views (the head of their unit was running for Sheriff against the incumbent sheriff's Chief of Staff). The defendants moved to dismiss the constitutional claims on qualified immunity grounds and the state law claims on statutory immunity grounds. The court never ruled on that motion. The defendants later moved for summary judgment, but only briefly argued qualified immunity and did not argue statutory immunity in their opening brief. Judge Guzman (N.D. Ill.) a) granted summary judgment on the merits on the retaliation claim based on safety complaints, b) denied summary judgment on the retaliation claim based on political views, c) denied the request for qualified immunity, concluding that defendants had waived it, and d) denied summary judgment with respect to the state law claims. Defendants appeal only the denial of qualified immunity on the constitutional claims.

In their opinion, Judges Cudahy, Flaum, and Wood reversed and remanded. The Court noted that the denial of a motion for summary judgment is ordinarily not appealable. It is, however, when the requested grounds for summary judgment is qualified immunity and when the denial involves only legal issues. Since a finding of waiver is a legal issue, the Court has jurisdiction to entertain the appeal. The Court seemed to have little difficulty in concluding that the district court erred in finding waiver. Although an underdeveloped argument can amount to waiver, it does so only when it provides inadequate notice of the argument. Here, defendants have argued qualified immunity from the beginning of the case. They argued in their motion to dismiss, they argued unambiguously (albeit briefly) in their opening summary judgment brief in a section captioned "Qualified Immunity," and they argued it at length in their reply brief. Arguments raised for the first time in reply briefs are generally considered waived, but arguments more fully developed in reply briefs do not necessarily suffer the same fate. The plain fact is that plaintiffs were on notice of the argument and defendants treatment of it did not constitute a waiver. Finding no waiver, the Court addressed the merits of the argument. The familiar test has two prongs -- whether the defendants violated a constitutional right and, if so, whether that right was clearly established at the time. When the constitutional violation concerns a public employee's First Amendment rights, a court first must determine whether the speech involves a matter of public concern. If it does, the court applies a balancing test. If it does not, the employee is not entitled to constitutional protection. Based on the district court's findings on the safety complaint retaliation claims, the Court was able to determine as a matter of law that the speech did not involve a matter of public concern. The plaintiffs were acting in response to their duties as employees and are not entitled to constitutional protection. Therefore, there was no constitutional violation, and the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. With respect to the political retaliation claim, however, the Court was unable to reach such a conclusion. The district court failed to identify the disputed and undisputed facts, nor did it make any findings regarding materiality. The Court remanded for that purpose.