Repeating previous holdings, 7th Circuit dismisses officer’s appeal of qualified immunity denial

Repeating a point that has been made “many times,”’ the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday dismissed an officer’s interlocutory appeal challenging the denial of qualified immunity, with the court reiterating that it does not have jurisdiction over such appeals if there is a factual dispute.

The case of Blake Stewardson v. Cameron Biggs, 21-3118, began in January 2018, when Blake Stewardson was arrested and transported to the Cass County Jail for operating while intoxicated and resisting law enforcement. Once at the jail, Stewardson began arguing with officers, yelling obscenities and resisting their efforts to control him.

Five incidents of alleged excessive force then occurred, three of which are at issue in the instant appeal. Two of the incidents allegedly occurred at the hands of Deputy Christopher Titus while Deputy Cameron Biggs allegedly failed to intervene, while the third only involved Titus, who was Biggs’ subordinate.

Stewardson filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint against the city of Logansport, Biggs, Titus and other officers alleging violations of his 14th Amendment rights. The Indiana Northern District Court interpreted the complaint as alleging failure-to-intervene claims against Biggs, who moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

The district court concluded Biggs was entitled to qualified immunity for the alleged incident that only involved Titus, but not for another incident that Biggs allegedly witnessed — Titus performing a “leg sweep” on a handcuffed Stewardson that ended up with Stewardson on the ground.

“The (district) court reasoned that ‘[o]nly moments before Deputy Titus tripped and slammed a handcuffed Mr. Stewardson onto the ground, Deputy Biggs witnessed him slam Mr. Stewardson into a wall,” Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi wrote, referencing the third incident of alleged excessive force. “It concluded that ‘construing the facts in the light most favorable to Mr. Stewardson, Deputy Titus[‘] conduct would have been obvious as a violation to Deputy Biggs by mere observation that his fellow deputy was using excessive force.’”

Biggs then filed an interlocutory appeal challenging the denial of qualified immunity, prompting the 7th Circuit to take a somewhat exasperated tone in its dismissal.

“We have explained many times that we do not have jurisdiction to review qualified immunity denials on interlocutory appeal when the district court’s decision, or the appellant’s arguments, turn on disputes of material fact,” Jackson-Akiwumi wrote. “… Yet we continue to receive appeals from officers who challenge district court orders denying them qualified immunity because of disputed facts.

“So, we repeat: we may review district court orders denying qualified immunity on interlocutory appeal only when the appellant brings ‘a purely legal argument that does not depend on disputed facts,’” the judge continued, quoting Ferguson v. McDonough, 13 F.4th 574 at 580 (7th Cir. 2021). “The interlocutory appeal before us does not meet this criteria.”

The appellate panel determined it did not have jurisdiction over Biggs’ appeal because his argument was “‘inseparable from the questions of fact identified by the district court’ and presents no purely legal question. Koh v. Ustich, 933 F.3d 836, 838 (7th Cir. 2019).” That question of fact, the panel determined, was “whether Biggs had a realistic opportunity to intervene to prevent Titus from leg sweeping Stewardson.”

“Biggs acknowledges for purposes of this appeal that he ‘could have verbally admonished Titus not to use any additional excessive force’ after he slammed Stewardson’s head against the wall and he ‘could have restricted Titus[‘] access to Stewardson and gotten other law enforcement officers … [to] escort Stewardson,’” Jackson-Akiwumi wrote for the court. “But he argues that he did not have ‘sufficient time or opportunity to intervene’ because the leg sweep happened moments after they entered the cell, he did not know Titus was going to employ a leg sweep, and Stewardson was on the ground quickly after Titus initiated and completed the leg sweep.

“Essentially, Biggs asks us to reconsider the district court’s conclusion that a jury could find that the timing of events gave him enough time to reasonably intervene,” she wrote. “We will not do so.

“His appeal illuminates that his arguments are ‘inseparable from the questions of fact identified by the district court.’ … We thus lack jurisdiction to review this appeal.”

However, the panel concluded by noting that Biggs could still assert qualified immunity at trial, even though he was not entitled to it on summary judgment.

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