Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Today the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Wood v. Moss, with Justice Ginsburg authoring the opinion for the Court. As covered earlier here, Wood v. Moss is a Bivens case brought by plaintiffs who had been protesting against President George W. Bush during his 2004 visit to a restaurant in Oregon. The plaintiffs claim that the defendants, who were secret service agents, violated their First Amendment rights by moving them farther away from the President than a similar group that was expressing support for the President.
In today’s decision, the Court unanimously rules that the defendants are protected by qualified immunity. To most, this conclusion did not come as a surprise. For many proceduralists, however, the case was of particular interest because of its potential effect on pleading standards in the wake of Twombly and Iqbal. Here’s how Justice Ginsburg puts things in footnote 5: “In ruling on a motion to dismiss, we have instructed, courts ‘must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true,’ but ‘are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.’ Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).” And on page 12: “[U]nder the governing pleading standard, the ‘complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’ Iqbal, 556 U.S., at 678 (internal quotation marks omitted).”
Part II.B of the opinion contains the most detailed discussion of qualified immunity and its requirement that a plaintiff’s claim be based on a right that was “clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.” [p.12]. Among other things, Justice Ginsburg writes:
“No decision of which we are aware ... would alert Secret Service agents engaged in crowd control that they bear a First Amendment obligation to ensure that groups with different viewpoints are at comparable locations at all times. ... No clearly established law, we agree, required the Secret Service to interfere with even more speech than security concerns would require in an attempt to keep opposing groups at roughly equal distances from the President. And surely no such law required the agents to attempt to maintain equal distances by prevailing upon the President not to dine at the Inn. [pp.14-15 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)]”
Part III of the opinion addresses a potentially distinct theory of liability, and that part of the opinion may prove more instructive on pleading standards generally. Part III begins: “The protesters allege that, when the agents directed their displacement, the agents acted not to ensure the President’s safety from handguns or explosive devices. Instead, the protesters urge, the agents had them moved solely to insulate the President from their message, thereby giving the President’s supporters greater visibility and audibility.” [pp.15-16] Justice Ginsburg does recognize the possibility that “clearly established law proscribed the Secret Service from disadvantaging one group of speakers in comparison to another if the agents had no objectively reasonable security rationale for their conduct, but acted solely to inhibit the expression of disfavored views.” [p.16 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)] She rejects this theory, however, noting that a map of the relevant area that the plaintiffs had included in their complaint “undermines the protesters’ allegations of viewpoint discrimination as the sole reason for the agents’ directions”; the map “corroborates that, because of their location, the protesters posed a potential security risk to the President, while the supporters, because of their location, did not.” [p.16]
Although the plaintiffs “make three arguments to shore up their charge that the agents’ asserted security concerns are disingenuous,” [p.16] Justice Ginsburg is not persuaded. In particular, she writes:
“[A]s the map attached to the complaint shows, see supra, at 4, when the President reached the patio to dine, the protesters, but not the supporters, were within weapons range of his location. See supra, at 14. Given that situation, the protesters cannot plausibly urge that the agents had no valid security reason to request or order their eviction.” [p.18 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)]
One of the many questions that has vexed courts, commentators, and practitioners after Twombly and Iqbal is how to evaluate allegations about a defendant’s intent. Although the 2002 decision in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema suggested a very lenient approach to such allegations, many have read Iqbal – which also involved allegations of discriminatory animus – to require a stricter approach. At first glance, Wood does not seem to provide a conclusive resolution. Although the Court rejects the plaintiffs’ viewpoint-discrimination theory, Justice Ginsburg relies heavily on the fact that material in the complaint itself – the map of the relevant area – “undermines the protesters’ allegations of viewpoint discrimination as the sole reason for the agents’ directions.” [p.16] This is not likely be a regular occurrence in cases involving discriminatory intent. Another feature of Wood may be even more important. Given Justice Ginsburg’s reasoning regarding qualified immunity, the plaintiffs would have had to show that “the agents had no objectively reasonable security rationale.” [p.16] Part III of the opinion, therefore, did not hinge on the premise that viewpoint discrimination played no role at all in the defendants’ decision; rather – as a matter of the substantive law governing the defendants’ qualified immunity defense – the presence of an objectively reasonable security rationale doomed the plaintiffs’ claims even if viewpoint discrimination also played a role.
PS: Readers may have noticed Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article describing how Supreme Court opinions can be revised by the Justices after they are initially issued – sometimes years later. For what it’s worth, then, I’m including in this post not only the relevant link to the opinion on the Supreme Court’s website, but also a downloaded version of the opinion as it originally appeared there this morning: