Jenner & Block

Supreme Court’s Ruling Adopts Firm’s Arguments in High Profile Civil Rights Case

On May 5, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court simultaneously granted certiorari and vacated an award of summary judgment to law enforcement in Tolan v. Cotton, a civil rights case that has drawn significant nationwide attention.  A police sergeant shot unarmed petitioner Robbie Tolan outside of his family’s home in Bellaire, Texas, after responding to a call by a fellow officer who wrongly suspected Mr. Tolan of having stolen the Tolans’ own car.  The district court awarded summary judgment to the sergeant and a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the sergeant was entitled to qualified immunity from Fourth Amendment liability as a matter of law.

Jenner & Block submitted an amicus brief in support of certiorari on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF), arguing that the Fifth Circuit panel engaged in impermissible fact-finding at the second qualified-immunity step, which asks simply whether the involved right was “clearly established” at the relevant time.  Adopting the arguments and analysis of the amicus, the Supreme Court held that neither of the two qualified-immunity prongs may import “disputed factual propositions,” and it labeled the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning “a clear misapprehension of summary judgment standards.” 

Citing extensive empirical research, the firm and LDF further argued that these studies suggest that the respondent's shooting of an unarmed black male could have resulted from unconscious biases that unfairly associated race with stereotypes of criminality, aggression and violence – a possibility that underscored the need for a jury trial.  The Court wrote, “The witnesses on both sides come to this case with their own perceptions, recollections, and even potential biases.  It is in part for that reason that genuine disputes are generally resolved by juries in our adversarial system.”

The Supreme Court’s per curiam decision is here.  The Jenner & Block team on the brief included Partner Anthony S. Barkow and Associates Eric Del Pozo, Reid A. Aronson and Natalie K. Orpett.