Police officers accused of misconduct do not have an automatic right to appeal an order denying qualified immunity in an action under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA), according to a recent decision by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Rather, a defendant seeking to challenge a trial court’s order denying qualified immunity prior to final judgment must proceed by motion for leave to file an interlocutory appeal in accordance with Rules 2:2-4 and 2:5-6. As the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. City of Newark highlights, New Jersey law continues to differ from federal law, which does allow for interlocutory appeals on this issue.
Assertion of Qualified Immunity
Plaintiff Hamid Harris (Plaintiff or Harris) alleged that Donald Stabile, a Newark Police Department detective, falsely accused him of four armed robberies and unlawfully arrested him in connection with those robberies based on an improperly issued arrest warrant. After the charges against Harris were dismissed, he filed a lawsuit under the NJCRA alleging claims against Stabile for false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution and an NJCRA claim against Stabile and Newark police officer Angel Romero (collectively, the “Defendants”) for civil rights conspiracy. The Defendants asserted the defense of qualified immunity to those claims and moved for summary judgment.
The doctrine of qualified immunity “shields law enforcement officers from personal liability for civil rights violations when the officers are acting under color of law in the performance of official duties,” unless the officers’ “performance is not objectively reasonable.” Qualified immunity can be asserted as a defense against actions brought under the NJCRA, as well as federal causes of action for a violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Nonetheless, the trial court found that the Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because Stabile did not have probable cause to arrest the Plaintiff, and because Stabile’s belief that the Plaintiff committed the robberies was objectively unreasonable. The Defendants subsequently filed a notice of appeal, asserting that Rule 2:2-3(a)(3) authorized them to appeal as of right the trial court’s decision denying qualified immunity. They also moved for leave to file an interlocutory appeal pursuant to Rule 2:5-6. The Appellate Division ruled that “[t]he appeal is interlocutory as it is not from a final order” and dismissed the defendants’ notice of appeal.
NJ Supreme Court Rejects Appeal as of Right
The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. It held that because the trial court’s order was a decision premised on factual findings as well as legal conclusions, it was not an exclusively legal determination. Thus, the trial court’s order rejecting as a matter of law a claim of qualified immunity should not be designated as a final order appealable as of right under Rule 2:2-3(a).
“We view the trial court’s order in this case to be a decision premised on factual findings as well as legal conclusions, not an exclusively legal determination,” Justice Anne Patterson wrote. “We conclude that a trial court’s order rejecting as a matter of law a claim of qualified immunity should not be designated as a final order appealable as of right under Rule 2:2-3(a), and that federal law does not require the contrary result. In an NJCRA action, a defendant seeking to challenge a trial court’s order denying qualified immunity prior to final judgment must proceed by motion for leave to file an interlocutory appeal in accordance with Rules 2:2-4 and 2:5-6.”
As the New Jersey Supreme Court explained, the application of the defense of qualified immunity is generally a legal question for the court rather than the jury that should be raised before trial. New Jersey case law, however, recognizes an exception to the rule that qualified immunity issues are legal issues to be decided by the court when the case involves disputed issues of fact. In this case, the court found that the trial court’s denial of summary judgment was premised on factual disputes as well as the court’s legal conclusions; thus, it was not an exclusively legal determination. In support, the New Jersey Supreme noted that the trial court identified factual disputes regarding the Plaintiff’s false arrest and false imprisonment civil rights claims and witnesses’ identifications of the Plaintiff, and the court stated that those factual disputes precluded summary judgment on the issue of qualified immunity.
With regard to whether a trial court’s purely legal determination denying qualified immunity should be appealable as of right under Rule 2:2-3(a), the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to add legal determinations denying the defense of qualified immunity to the narrow class of interlocutory orders subject to direct appeal under Rule 2:2-3(a). In reaching its decision, the court emphasized that a motion for leave to appeal pursuant to Rules 2:2-4 and 2:5-6 provides a meaningful opportunity for interlocutory appellate review and protects the public entity’s interest in avoiding trial costs and potential liability. Additionally, it concluded that the New Jersey Legislature’s purpose in enacting the NJCRA would not be advanced by appeal as of right.
The New Jersey Supreme Court also rejected the Defendants’ contention that federal law mandates an appeal as of right from a legal determination rejecting qualified immunity. In support, it cited that a state may adopt or reject the collateral order doctrine even in actions brought in state court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and is “clearly free” to adopt or reject that doctrine in state court actions premised on state civil rights statutes such as the NJCRA.
“In our view, applying the collateral order doctrine to NJCRA claims would engender substantial delay in the resolution of civil rights litigation, encourage piecemeal litigation, and undermine judicial economy,” Justice Patterson wrote. “We view our current appellate procedure to effectively balance the interests of the parties and promote judicial economy in NJCRA actions. We decline to adopt the collateral order doctrine for such claims.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court also disagreed with the Defendants’ contention that Rule 2:2-3(a), as applied to the case, is preempted by federal law. “Rule 2:2-3(a) does not determine the outcome of this appeal, let alone raise the specter of inconsistent dispositions of civil rights claims in state and federal court,” Justice Patterson wrote. “The Rule does nothing more than affect the procedure for and timing of the defendants’ appeal of the trial court’s order denying qualified immunity, which is subject to discretionary appellate review under Rule 2:2-4 and to an appeal as of right after a final judgment under Rule 2:2-3(a).”
Under the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. City of Newark, a defendant seeking to challenge a trial court’s order denying qualified immunity prior to final judgment in an NJCRA action must proceed by motion for leave to file an interlocutory appeal in accordance with Rules 2:2-4 and 2:5-6.