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Early Dismissal of Probationer's Lawsuit on Qualified Immunity Grounds Reversed By Ninth Circuit

On March 29, 2016, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed an Oregon federal district court ruling which dismissed a lawsuit filed by a man whose probation was revoked after he refused to admit that he was guilty of the sex offense for which he was convicted. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the district court judge, who dismissed the case on the grounds of qualified immunity without being asked to by the defendants, erred because he should have allowed the plaintiff the chance to amend his complaint prior to dismissing it.

In early 2008, an Oregon state court jury convicted Daniel Chavez of several sex offenses. After serving his sentence, Chavez was released from prison in June 2010, at which time he began serving his five-year term of probation. As a condition of probation, Chavez was required to pay for and complete a sex offender treatment program.

Chavez, who maintained his innocence throughout his trial and then-pending appeal, asked an Oregon state court to delay his treatment until after his appeal because the treatment program requires participants to admit their guilt. Hoping for a possible retrial, Chavez wanted to ensure that no information he divulged during treatment would be used against him at a retrial. The court denied his motion to postpone treatment, but did order that nothing Chavez admitted during treatment could be used against him in court.

Chavez was then ordered to attend sex offender treatment, but his private treatment counselor terminated him because he had previously refused to sign a form admitting his guilt, and because Chavez filed suit against him a day earlier.

Because Chavez was terminated from treatment, his probation officer wound him in violation of his probation, and Chavez was given 45 days in jail. Chavez sued his probation officer and sex offender treatment counselor in federal court, alleging infringement of his First Amendment right against self-incrimination. Upon reviewing the complaint, the district court judge dismissed the action on his own motion, holding that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity as the lawsuit sought "monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief." See: 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(iii).

On appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit reversed. Although the appellate court held that it is proper in some circumstances for a district court to dismiss a complaint on its own motion on qualified immunity grounds, it could only do so if it is clear that the plaintiff could present no evidence to overcome such a claim.

The panel concluded that the lower court should have allowed Chavez an opportunity to amend his complaint to clarify whether his counselor was acting under color of state law in operating the sex offender treatment program, or whether the counselor or probation officer violated any clearly established law.

"Chavez's pro se complaint [which must be liberally construed] did not clearly show that he would be unable to overcome qualified immunity," the appellate court wrote. "Accordingly, the district court erred by dismissing Chavez's § 1983 claim." See: Chavez v. Robinson, et al., No. 14-35384 (9th Cir. 2016).