People For the American Way

Trump Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Grant Immunity to State Trooper From Liability Under State Civil Rights Law and From Punitive Damages: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

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Trump Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Grant Immunity to State Trooper From Liability Under State Civil Rights Law and From Punitive Damages:  Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

 

Trump Eighth Circuit judge Ralph Erickson cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 ruling that affirmed the grant of immunity to a state trooper from liability under a state civil rights law for misconduct in arresting a motorist and that ruled out punitive damages against him. The July 2021 decision was in Thurairajah v City of Fort Smith.

Eric Thurairajah was driving along a busy five-lane highway in Arkansas when he saw state trooper Lagarian Cross conducting a traffic stop of a van containing a mother and two young children, who were forced to pull over on the shoulder of the opposite side of the highway. Thurairajah thought the trooper’s conduct was inappropriate and yelled “F*#* you” at the trooper as he drove by at around 35 mph.

Cross became angry, immediately ended the traffic stop, turned his car around, and drove after and stopped Thurairajah.  According to him, Cross “yelled” at him to get out of the car and arrested him in a “hostile” and “violent” manner, including “aggressively moving” him around and being “very aggressive through all the searches” of him. Thurairajah was arrested for disorderly conduct for addressing the expletive at Cross and was detained in jail for several hours, but then was released and all charges were dropped.

Thurairajah later sued Cross under both federal and Arkansas state civil rights law, contending that Cross had improperly retaliated against him for the expletive directed against Cross and committed an “unreasonable seizure.”  Cross claimed he should be immune from liability under federal law, but the district court and the court of appeals rejected that assertion, finding that the undisputed facts showed that he “lacked even arguable probable cause” for an arrest and “violated Thurairajah’s clearly established constitutional rights.” The case then went to trial before a jury and, particularly since Cross’ actions fortunately did not cause severe physical injury, Thurairajah wanted to argue that it should penalize Cross by awarding punitive damages under federal and state law.

The trial court decided, however, that Cross was immune from any liability under state law because of the lack of evidence that Cross’ conduct was “malicious,” as it believed was required by state law, and similarly ruled that Thurairajah could not seek punitive damages because he did not present evidence that Cross was “motivated by an evil motive” or showed “reckless or callous indifference.” Although Cross was found liable under federal law, he was required to pay only nominal damages and Thurairajah appealed.

In a 2-1 decision in which Trump judge Erickson was the deciding vote, the Eighth Circuit affirmed. The majority maintained that unlike federal civil rights law, Arkansas law provides that state employees like Cross are immune from liability unless there is evidence that their conduct constituted “malicious acts or omissions,” and there was no such evidence in this case. As for the federal claim, the majority also agreed with the district court that the evidence was “insufficient” to prove that Cross’ conduct was “sufficiently egregious” to justify even asking the jury to award punitive damages against him.

Judge Jane Kelly dissented. To prove malice for purposes of overcoming state law immunity or to seek punitive damages, she explained, case law is clear that it is sufficient to prove a “conscious violation of the law” or a “wrongful act without just cause or excuse, with an intent to inflict an injury.” Construing the record in favor of  Thurairajah, as Kelly noted that the law requires,  a jury could “reasonably conclude” that Cross arrested Thurairajah not because of a belief that he had engaged in disorderly conduct, but instead because “he was angered by the profanity” that was “directed at him.”  A jury could thus conclude, she went on, that Cross “consciously violated the law,” which was sufficient to overcome state law immunity and warrant allowing the jury to decide whether to award punitive damages under federal and state law. Kelly concluded that the trial court’s decision on these issues should be reversed so that Thurairajah would have an opportunity to convince the jury to find Cross liable under state law and award punitive damages under state and federal law.

As a result of the deciding vote by Trump judge Erickson, however, Thurairajah will have no opportunity to seek such damages against Cross, eliminating in this case an important tool for accountability against police who commit misconduct. The decision reinforces the importance, in our fight for our courts, of promptly confirming Biden nominees to all our federal courts who appreciate the importance of proper accountability with respect to police officers charged with misconduct that violates federal and state law.