If you or a loved one considered filing a lawsuit against someone from the government, you probably know the term “qualified immunity” from someone. Put simply, qualified immunity is a legal concept created by judges that protects government officials—like police officers, prison guards and others—from lawsuits.
The concept started as something meant to keep officials from acting in bad faith. But now it often stands in the way of injured people who want to hold the government accountable for official wrongdoing.
What does qualified immunity mean?
The doctrine of qualified immunity makes government officials immune from lawsuits as long as their conduct doesn’t violate a “clearly established” right. This means that, unless a government official’s conduct violates a “clearly established” right, you can’t win a lawsuit against them.
You can still file a lawsuit. But the court will dismiss it almost immediately. Even if the government official was incompetent or acted on purpose, qualified immunity protects them in almost every circumstance.
What makes things worse is that the phrase “clearly established” probably doesn’t mean what you think it does. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a right is “clearly established” by another court case.
This means that another court must have already decided it in the same “specific context” and the same “particular conduct” as your case. If such a case does not exist, courts say, there is no “clearly established” right.
In the majority of cases against government officials, courts dismiss claims for this very reason.
Who does qualified immunity protect?
Most cases involving qualified immunity focus on police officers. It’s true that police officers have immunity in lots of situations. But qualified immunity applies to other government officials, too.
Behind police, the most common example is prison officials. If a prison guard violates your constitutional rights but not in “clearly established” way, that prison guard can usually win very early on in the case.
How can you case get past qualified immunity?
To get past this kind of immunity, you must be able to show a violation of a “clearly established” right. In a 2020 court case called Taylor v. Riojas, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a case to move forward despite the prison officials claiming qualified immunity.
In that case, the plaintiff’s prison cell had “massive amounts of feces” from the floor to the ceiling. Fearing that his food and water in the cell had contamination, the plaintiff did not eat or drink for almost four days. Officials then moved him to a freezing-cold cell. In that cell, he had to lay on the ground in raw sewage to sleep.
According to the Court, this sickening conduct violated “clearly established” rights. But this shows you the kind of conduct you need to overcome qualified immunity.
If you want to sue a police officer, a prison guard or someone else for the way they treated you, you usually must overcome qualified immunity. You can only do this if the person violated a “clearly established” right. This is a very high burden to meet.