Jury Will Hear First Amendment Rights Case after Eleventh Circuit Denial of Qualified Immunity

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Court has affirmed a district court order denying qualified immunity for a Miami-Dade Police Officer, allowing a Miami man to move forward to a jury trial on his claims of First Amendment retaliation. Pro bono Shook client Gustavo Abella brought a civil rights action alleging deprivation of his First Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 where the officer had threatened to arrest and cite him for displaying political signs in his car’s rear window, among other things.

The officer moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was entitled to qualified immunity because Abella’s relevant constitutional rights were not “clearly established.” And, even if his rights were clearly established, Abella could not prove that officer’s threats were motivated by Abella’s filing of over 45 complaints to various governmental agencies regarding the officer’s history of retaliatory conduct against Abella and his family. The district court denied the officer’s motion, and the officer immediately appealed. Affirming the district court’s denial, the Eleventh Circuit rejected each of the officer’s arguments.

“This Court’s precedent clearly establishes the contours of the right at issue,” namely “that a police officer cannot harass or threaten unlawful arrest and citation because of a person’s protected speech,” the per curiam opinion said. 

“Mr. Abella, his family, and the entire Shook team are pleased the Court denied qualified immunity in this case,” said Shook Attorney Eric Boos. “During the current moment where Americans are re-examining the relationship between police officers and the communities they serve, it is deeply rewarding that Mr. Abella will have the opportunity to tell his story to a jury of his peers.”

Shook attorneys participating in this appeal include Eric Boos, Jenn Hatcher, Abigail Lawson, Ross Merrill, and Charlie Rosebrough. The case is Abella v. Rodriguez, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 20-10833 (August 31, 2020). Trial in this matter will likely be set for some time in 2021.