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9th Circuit: Class-action by Civilly Committed Sexually Violent Predators May Proceed on Claims for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief

Following remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit reversed in part its previous published ruling, Hydrick v. Hunter, 500 F.3d 978 (9th Cir. 2007) [PLN, April 2007, p.34], which had held that the administrators of Atascadero State Hospital, the defendants in a class-action lawsuit initiated by people civilly committed under California’s Sexually Violent Predator Act (Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 6600 et seq.), were not entitled to qualified immunity with respect to claims for monetary damages. At the same time, the appellate court ruled that the plaintiffs’ claims for declaratory and injunctive relief could proceed.

In 2002, the plaintiffs, confined at Atascadero State Hospital, filed an amended complaint in federal district court alleging that the conditions of their confinement violated their constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as money damages from the defendants in their individual capacities.

The defendants sought dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims for monetary damages based on qualified immunity. When the district court denied their motion, the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal. The Ninth Circuit held that while the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity with respect to the plaintiffs’ ex post facto, double jeopardy, procedural due process, Eighth Amendment and First Amendment “refusal of treatment” claims, they were not entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Fourth Amendment and First Amendment retaliation claims.

The defendants then petitioned for certiorari. The Supreme Court granted the writ, vacated the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of intervening precedent, i.e., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2007) [PLN, July 2009, p.18].

In Iqbal, the Supreme Court seemingly raised the bar for § 1983 pleadings, at least in cases involving supervisory liability, holding that in order to survive a motion for dismissal on qualified immunity grounds, a complaint needs to do more than make “bald” and “conclusory” allegations; rather, it needs to allege specific facts sufficient to “plausibly suggest” each defendant’s personal involvement in a constitutional violation.

The Ninth Circuit noted on remand that the plaintiffs’ complaint was based on conclusory allegations and generalities, and “devoid of specifics.” Accordingly, pursuant to Iqbal, on January 12, 2012 the appellate court granted qualified immunity to the defendants.
Because claims for injunctive and declaratory relief are unaffected by qualified immunity, however, the plaintiffs were allowed to proceed on those claims. See: Hydrick v. Hunter, 669 F.3d 937 (9th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Hydrick v. Hunter