Application of “accommodation” requirement to emergency police encounters with persons with mental illness

Sheehan v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 743 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir.) cert. granted sub nom. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, Cal. v. Sheehan, 135 S. Ct. 702 (2014).

Lower Court Opinions:

Plaintiff, Teresa Sheehan, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against police officers and the city after the officers entered her home without a warrant and shot her five or six times when she reacted violently to the officers' presence, grabbing a knife and threatening to kill the officers. Plaintiff, a woman in her mid-50s suffering from a mental illness, told the officers that she did not want to be taken to a mental health facility. The United States District Court for the Northern District of California granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants finding that the officers (1) were justified in entering Sheehan’s home, (2) did not use excessive force when they shot Sheehan, and (3) could not bring against the individual officers or the city under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court relied on language from a 5th Circuit case in reaching this third conclusion: “section 12132 does not permit a cause of action based on an “officer's on-the-street responses to reported disturbances or other similar incidents, whether or not those calls involve subjects with mental disabilities, prior to the officer's securing the scene and ensuring that there is no threat to human life.”

The 9th Circuit affirmed in part, holding that the officers were justified in entering plaintiff's home initially under the emergency aid exception because they had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that she was in need of emergency medical assistance and they conducted the search or seizure in a reasonable manner up to that point. The court held that there were triable issues of fact as to whether the second entry violated the Fourth Amendment where a jury could find that the officers acted unreasonably by forcing the second entry and provoking a near-fatal confrontation. The court further held that there were triable issues of fact as to whether the officers used excessive force by resorting to deadly force and shooting plaintiff. Finally, the court held that the district court properly rejected claims of municipal liability; the court joined the majority of circuits that have addressed the issue and held that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. 12132, applied to arrests; on the facts presented here, there was a triable issue as to whether the officers failed to reasonably accommodate plaintiff's disability; and the court vacated summary judgment on plaintiff's state law claims and remanded for further proceedings.

Briefs of Petitioners and Respondent:

On appeal to the Supreme Court, both parties raised two questions in their original briefs. First, whether the accommodation requirement of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations during the course of bringing an armed and mentally ill suspect into custody. Second, for the purpose of determining whether officers were entitled to qualified immunity, whether it was clearly established that even if an exception to the warrant requirement applied, entry into a residence may be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment when officers enter the home of an armed and mentally disturbed individual.

According to petitioners (City and County of San Francisco), Sheehan was not entitled to accommodations during her arrest process because she was not “qualified…to invoke a public entity’s duty to modify its activities” because she posed “a direct threat or significant risk to the safety of others” at the time of her arrest. Petitioners contended that, because the determination of threat or risk is to be based on the reasonable judgment of the person from whom the accommodation is demanded, and the officers made an objectively reasonable judgment based on the information they had at the time, Sheehan was not entitled to an accommodation during her arrest. In regard to the Fourth Amendment warrant-exception issue, the petitioners contended that the rule articulated in the case below—that absent an immediate need police officers are prevented from entering the residence of an armed, violent, and mentally ill person and even in the case of an immediate need to enter the officers are prevented from using force to defend themselves against even a provoked attack—both contradicted Supreme Court precedent and was not clearly established by 9th Circuit precedent.

In response, the brief for Teresa Sheehan argued at the outset that it did not make “legal” sense to apply an exception to Title II’s reasonable accommodation requirement when an individual’s mental illness is the reason for the police’s interaction with that person. Further, the brief for the respondent contended that, as a factual matter, Sheehan could not have been considered a reasonable direct threat for the purpose of the exception because (1) she was alone in the residence and the officers were on the outside of the door, (2) Sheehan was not a flight risk, and (3) Sheehan had only ever threatened individuals who entered her room without permission. In response to the petitioners’ claim that delay would have been an unreasonable accommodation, respondent contended that the proposed modifications put forward were “consistent with applicable training materials and universally accepted police practices designed to minimize the risk of a violent confrontation with a mentally ill individual.” Finally, Sheehan contended that the officers should not be entitled to qualified immunity in respect to their actions because forcibly reopening the door to Sheehan’s room and shooting her multiple times without taking her mental illness into account or identifying a countervailing need to enter was objectively unreasonable.

Reply Brief of Petitioners:

In their reply brief, the petitions began by identifying that while Title II of the ADA “does not permit police officers to assume that erratic conduct caused by mental illness is dangerous” it also does not “require officers to ignore dangerous conduct because it may be caused by mental illness.” The reply brief emphasized that arrest situations— especially ones involving mentally ill persons who are armed, acting erratically, and potentially violent—involve split-second judgments that should not be assessed “[w]ith the benefit of hindsight and calm deliberation.” Thus, the risk determination should be assessed in the closed universe of the facts of the situation as available to the officers at the time of the arrest. The reply brief also took issue with the temporal focus on the respondent’s brief (i.e. solely focusing on the “second” entry when the officers entered Sheehan’s closed-off bedroom). Instead, petitioners argued that the second entry could not be considered in isolation, but must be analyzed in the context of the entire encounter up to that point: “[W]hen the officers decided to reenter Sheehan’s room, they knew beyond question that Sheehan was violent and intended harm.”

Briefs of Selected Amici Curiae:

American Psychological Association (et alia): The American Psychological Association filed a brief in conjunction with several other amici. The complete list of joint amici included the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, Delaware, Illinois, New Mexico, Ohio, and Vermont Psychological Associations, National Council on Disability, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. The joint brief took the position that the question of whether an individual is “qualified” within the meaning of the ADA should be determined by analyzing the entire encounter between law enforcement and the mentally ill individual. Further, the brief argued that it is precisely the situation in which failure to provide accommodation is the partial cause of threatening or violent behavior that the statute’s protection is important. Finally, the APA brief took the position that an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations when interacting with mentally ill individuals at the time of arrest would not impose any undue burden on law enforcement or other public entities.

Policy Council on Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill (“Policy Council”): The Policy Council filed a brief in strong support of respondent Teresa Sheehan, opening their argument with the proposition that it is “critical to the safety and well-being of those suffering from mental illness, as well as their loved ones, that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply vigorously to police encounters” because they are “acutely vulnerable.” The Policy Council’s brief highlighted the public policy concerns that support the enforcement of the ADA’s accommodation requirement: namely, “the importance of encouraging people who need help to seek it.” The brief also took the position that in “barricade situations involving mentally ill individuals, there should rarely be a question as to the [ADA]’s applicability.” Finally, the Policy Council argued that “fairness and equity suggest that the ADA accommodation requirement should apply when officers are present for the sole purpose of assisting” mentally ill persons.

United States: The amicus brief of the United States of America supported vacatur in part and reversal in part. As to the ADA claim, the United States agreed that “[b]y its plain terms, the provision…extends to arrests.” The government did, however, also argue that when “police officers arrest an individual with a disability who is armed and violent, any deviation from ordinary law enforcement tactics will generally present very real safety risks.” Still, while of the mind that in the ordinary run of cases no modifications to the ADA will be required, the government espoused the position that a plaintiff should still “remain free to show that special circumstances rendered a modification reasonable” given the facts of any particular case.” Given the facts of the instant case, the government argued that Sheehan’s being armed and violent put the burden on her to show that an accommodation would not have presented safety concerns for the officers involved.

National League of Cities: The National League of Cities, filing in support of the petitioners, began by arguing that the holdings of the 9th Circuit below ignored the “practical reality faced by police officers who must routinely confront seriously mentally ill suspects who are armed and violent.” Taking a position quite different from the other amici curiae, the National League of Cities, while acknowledging that some cities have adopted special procedures for responding to incidents with mentally ill individuals, claims that “there is no conclusive evidence that these specialized approaches reduce the rate or severity of injuries suffered during police encounters with mentally ill suspects.” Further, the National League of Cities argued that requiring police officers to “undertake special procedures to accommodate an armed and violent suspect’s mental disability during an emergency situation” would have serious consequences for the safety of officers and the public because it would encourage them to “hesitate or delay in confronting an armed and violent suspect who displays any sign of a mental illness.”

Argument Analysis:

[ from Lyle Denniston, Argument Analysis: Can a Really Rough Start be Overcome?, SCOTUSBLOG.COM, (Mar. 23, 2015, 3:07 PM), ]

In the opening moments of the oral arguments, Justice Scalia expressed concern (and thinly veiled annoyance) at his perception that the case “may have changed markedly once it got on the Court’s docket.” Justice Scalia questioned Christine Van Aiken, deputy city attorney for San Francisco, on the apparent discrepancies between the question on which the Court granted certiorari and the arguments raised in the city’s merits brief. According to Justice Scalia, the Court had taken the case to decide whether the ADA should apply at all in the context of an arrest (the position taken in the city’s lower court briefs), but the briefs filed by the city with the Supreme Court couched the question in terms of when the ADA’s protections kick in during an arrest. The city’s articulated position in its merits brief (as read out from petitioners’ filings by Justice Scalia and also remarked upon by Justice Sonia Sotomayor) was that the ADA’s protections only apply once “a threat [posed by a disabled person] has been eliminated.” Justice Samuel Alito also introduced another complicating factor—although no one had addressed the issue in a brief— by articulating the opinion that the definition of discrimination in the context of police activity could be a threshold matter.

By the time Van Aiken’s time had expired, the Court had only spent a little time on the merits of the case. Ian H. Gershengorn, Deputy Solicitor General, spoke next, advancing the view espoused in the federal government’s brief that the protection of the ADA “definitely does, and should, apply to police arrests.” He received some pushback from the Justices, but held strongly to his argument even under fire on the topic of the questions that might arise in the “tense situations” when officers confront a potentially violent and mentally ill individual.

Soon after Leonard Feldman, Sheehan’s lawyer, began his arguments, the Justices seemed to be “developing some skepticism about how police could actually try to calm a situation when an armed and violent person came at them with a knife and with a threat to kill them.” Specifically, Chief Justice John Roberts raised the issue of whether Sheehan might have been a suicide risk—suggesting that a reasonable fear of an individual posing a risk of self-harm might be enough to trigger exceptions to the ADA and the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

Ultimately, the court seemed confused (or at the least to have serious lingering questions) about (1) which standard each party was advocating for the Court to apply in interpreting the ADA’s applicability to arrests, and (2) the factual specifics of whether Sheehan did actually pose a “direct threat” to the officers.

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 1