Officers question award of post-mortem damages under Section 1983

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Petitions of the week
A courier drops off a package at the Supreme Court

The Petitions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert petitions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all petitions we’re watching is available here.

When a person is killed, the damages that their descendants or families can receive vary from state to state. Only five states allow for “hedonic” damages, or money to account for the deceased’s loss of enjoyment of future life. This week, we highlight cert petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, whether hedonic damages are consistent with the federal statute permitting lawsuits against state officials for civil rights violations.

Fermin Vincent Valenzuela was killed by police in Anaheim, California, who were responding to a call about Valenzuela’s suspicious behavior outside a laundromat. Approaching Valenzuela as he retrieved clothes from a washing machine, the officers noticed that he carried a methamphetamine pipe and screwdriver and confronted him. A struggle ensued, Valenzuela broke free, and the police chased him across the street and restrained him using a carotid hold. Valenzuela lost consciousness and was sent to the hospital, where he died eight days later.

Valenzuela’s father and children sued the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the federal law that allows private individuals to sue state officials for violating their civil rights. The state jury awarded $13.2 million in damages, $3.6 million of which were hedonic damages. A federal district court in California upheld the award in full, holding that a 2014 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit established that the purpose of Section 1983 provides for hedonic damages in suits under that law despite California’s prohibition on those damages under state law. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit affirmed, and the officers’ request for rehearing by the full 9th Circuit was denied over the dissent of 11 circuit judges.

In City of Anaheim, California v. Valenzuela, the officers ask the justices to decide whether the prohibitions on hedonic damages in California and 44 other states prevent a federal court from awarding those damages in a Section 1983 suit. The text of 42 U.S.C § 1988, the officers argue, provides that state law governs Section 1983 proceedings where federal law is silent, and the statute does not provide for hedonic damages. Nor does the purpose of Section 1983 suggest that Congress intended to provide for these damages, the officers contend, because traditional damages ($9.6 million of which were awarded here) are more than sufficient to redress harm.

A list of this week’s featured petitions is below:

Shoop v. Cunningham
21-1587
Issues: (1) Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit erred by granting habeas relief based on an alleged misapplication of its own circuit precedent under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which generally prohibits courts from awarding habeas relief to state prisoners but lifts that prohibition with respect to prisoners in custody because of a state-court ruling that was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States”; and (2) whether, when the requirements for a federal evidentiary hearing are otherwise satisfied but Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b)(1) forbids considering the only evidence supporting an evidentiary hearing, a court must hold the hearing regardless.

City of Anaheim, California v. Valenzuela
21-1598
Issue: Whether under Robertson v. Wegmann a federal court apply a state law prohibition on hedonic damages to a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 survival claim, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has held, or whether a limitation on such damages is inconsistent with the purposes of Section 1983, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 7th and 9th Circuits have held.

Polselli v. Internal Revenue Service
21-1599
Issue: Whether the exception in I.R.C. § 7609(c)(2)(D)(i) to the notice requirements for an Internal Revenue Service summons on third-party recordkeepers applies only when the delinquent taxpayer owns or has a legal interest in the summonsed records, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has held, or whether the exception applies to a summons for anyone’s records whenever the IRS thinks that person’s records might somehow help it collect a delinquent taxpayer’s liability, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 6th and 7th Circuits have held.



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