Johnson v. Jones

Citation515 U.S. 304,115 S.Ct. 2151,132 L.Ed.2d 238
Decision Date12 June 1995
Docket Number94455
PartiesTyson JOHNSON, et al., Petitioners, v. Houston JONES
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus *

Respondent Jones brought this "constitutional tort" action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against five named policemen, claiming that they used excessive force when they arrested him and that they beat him at the police station. As government officials, the officers were entitled to assert a qualified immunity defense. Three of them (the petitioners here) moved for summary judgment arguing that, whatever evidence Jones might have about the other two officers, he could point to no evidence that these three had beaten him or had been present during beatings. Holding that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence supporting Jones's theory of the case, the District Court denied the motion. Petitioners sought an immediate appeal, arguing that the denial was wrong because the evidence in the pretrial record was not sufficient to show a "genuine" issue of fact for trial, Fed. Rule Civ.Proc. 56(c). The Seventh Circuit held that it lacked appellate jurisdiction over this contention and dismissed the appeal.

Held: A defendant, entitled to invoke a qualified immunity defense, may not appeal a district court's summary judgment order insofar as that order determines whether or not the pretrial record sets forth a "genuine" issue of fact for trial. Pp. ____.

(a) Three background principles guide the Court. First, 28 U.S.C. § 1291 grants appellate courts jurisdiction to hear appeals only from district courts' "final decisions." Second, under Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 69 S.Ct. 1221, 93 L.Ed. 1528, and subsequent decisions, a so-called "collateral order" amounts to an immediately appealable "final decisio[n]" under § 1291, even though the district court may have entered it long before the case has ended, if the order (1) conclusively determines the disputed question, (2) resolves an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action, and (3) will be effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment. Third, in Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 528, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2816, 86 L.Ed.2d 411, this Court held that a district court's order denying a defendant's summary judgment motion was an immediately appealable "collateral order" (i.e., a "final decision") under Cohen, where (1) the defendant was a public official asserting a qualified immunity defense, and (2) the issue appealed concerned, not which facts the parties might be able to prove, but, rather, whether or not certain given facts show a violation of "clearly established" law. Pp. ____.

(b) Orders of the kind here at issue are not appealable for three reasons. First, considered purely as precedent, Mitchell itself does not support appealability because the underlying dispute therein involved the application of "clearly established" law to a given (for appellate purposes undisputed) set of facts, and the Court explicitly limited its holding to appeals challenging, not a district court's determination about what factual issues are "genuine," but the purely legal issue what law was "clearly established." Second, although Cohen's conceptual theory of appealability finds a "final" district court decision in part because the immediately appealable decision involves issues significantly different from those that underlie the plaintiff's basic case, it will often prove difficult to find any such "separate" question where a defendant simply wants to appeal a district court's determination that the evidence is sufficient to permit a particular finding of fact after trial. Finally, the competing considerations underlying questions of finality—the inconvenience and costs of piecemeal review, the danger of denying justice by delay, the comparative expertise of trial and appellate courts, and the wise use of appellate resources—argue against extending Mitchell to encompass orders of the kind at issue and in favor of limiting interlocutory appeals of "qualified immunity" matters to cases presenting more abstract issues of law. Pp. ____.

(c) Neither of petitioners' arguments as to why the Court's effort to separate reviewable from unreviewable summary judgment determinations will prove unworkable—that the parties can easily manipulate the Court's holding and that appellate courts will have great difficulty in accomplishing such separation—presents a problem serious enough to require a different conclusion. Pp. ____-____.

26 F.3d 727 (CA7 1994), affirmed.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Charles Rothfeld, Washington, DC, for petitioners.

Cornelia T.L. Pillard, Washington, DC, for U.S. as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court.

Edward G. Proctor, Jr., Chicago, IL, for respondent.

Justice BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns government officials—entitled to assert a qualified immunity defense in a "constitutional tort" action—who seek an immediate appeal of a district court order denying their motions for summary judgment. The order in question resolved a fact-related dispute about the pretrial record, namely whether or not the evidence in the pretrial record was sufficient to show a genuine issue of fact for trial. We hold that the defendants cannot immediately appeal this kind of fact-related district court determination. And, we affirm the similar holding of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.


The plaintiff in this case, Houston Jones, is a diabetic. Police officers found him on the street while he was having an insulin seizure. The officers thought he was drunk, they arrested him, and they took him to the police station. Jones later found himself in a hospital, with several broken ribs. Subsequently, Jones brought this "constitutional tort" action against five named policemen. Rev.Stat. § 1979, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Jones claimed that these policemen used exces- sive force when they arrested him and that they beat him at the station.

Three of the officers (the petitioners here) moved for summary judgment arguing that, whatever evidence Jones might have about the other two officers, he could point to no evidence that these three had beaten him or had been present while others did so. Jones responded by pointing to his deposition, in which he swore that officers (though he did not name them) had used excessive force when arresting him and later, in the booking room at the station house. He also pointed to the three officers' own depositions, in which they admitted they were present at the arrest and in or near the booking room when Jones was there.

The District Court denied the officers' summary judgment motion. The court wrote that Seventh Circuit precedent indicated potential liability if the three officers "stood by and allowed others to beat the plaintiff." App. to Pet. for Cert. 7a. And, the court held that there was "sufficient circumstantial evidence supporting [Jones's] theory of the case," id., at 8a.

The three officers immediately appealed the District Court's denial of their summary judgment motion. They argued, in relevant part, that the denial was wrong because the record contained "not a scintilla of evidence . . . that one or more" of them had "ever struck, punched or kicked the plaintiff, or ever observed anyone doing so." Brief for Appellants in No. 93-3777 (CA7), p. 10. But, the Seventh Circuit refused to consider this argument—namely that the District Court had improperly rejected their contention that the record lacked sufficient evidence even to raise a "genuine" (i.e., triable) issue of fact. The Seventh Circuit held that it "lack[ed] appellate jurisdiction over th[is] contention," i.e., of the "evidence insufficiency" contention that "we didn't do it." 26 F.3d 727, 728 (CA7 1994). It consequently dismissed their appeal.

Courts of Appeals hold different views about the immediate appealability of such pretrial "evidence insufficiency" claims made by public official defendants who assert qualified-immunity defenses. Compare, e.g., Kaminsky v. Rosenblum, 929 F.2d 922, 926 (CA2 1991) (saying that no appellate jurisdiction exists); Giuffre v. Bissell, 31 F.3d 1241, 1247 (CA3 1994) (same); Boulos v. Wilson, 834 F.2d 504, 509 (CA5 1987) (same); Elliott v. Thomas, 937 F.2d 338, 341-342 (CA7 1991) (same), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 1074, 1121, 112 S.Ct. 973, 1242, 117 L.Ed.2d 138, 475 (1992); Crawford-El v. Britton, 951 F.2d 1314, 1317 (CADC 1991) (same), with Unwin v. Campbell, 863 F.2d 124, 128 (CA1 1988) (saying that appellate jurisdiction does exist); Turner v. Dammon, 848 F.2d 440, 444 (CA4 1988) (same); Kelly v. Bender, 23 F.3d 1328, 1330 (CA8 1994) (same); Burgess v. Pierce County, 918 F.2d 104, 106, and n. 3 (CA9 1990) (per curiam) (same); Austin v. Hamilton, 945 F.2d 1155, 1157, 1162-1163 (CA10 1991) (same). We therefore granted certiorari. 513 U.S. ----, 115 S.Ct. 713, 130 L.Ed.2d 621 (1995).


Three background principles guide our effort to decide this issue. First, the relevant statute grants appellate courts jurisdiction to hear appeals only from "final decisions" of district courts. 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Given this statute, interlocutory appeals—appeals before the end of district court proceedings—are the exception, not the rule. The statute recognizes that rules that permit too many interlocutory appeals can cause harm. An interlocutory appeal can make it more difficult for trial judges to do their basic job—supervising trial proceedings. It can threaten those proceedings with delay, adding costs and diminishing coherence. It also risks additional, and unnecessary, appellate court work either when it presents appellate courts with less developed records or when it brings them appeals that, had the trial simply proceeded, would have turned out to be unnecessary. See Richardson-Merrell Inc. v. Koller, 472 U.S. 424, 430, 105...

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