Maine Bar Journal
Spring 2012 #2.
Gorham v. Androscoggin County: A Step In The Right Direction Toward Equal Enforcement Of Federal Civil Rights Claims In Maine State Courts
Maine Bar JournalVOLUME 27 , NUMBER 2 , Spring 2012Gorham v. Androscoggin County: A Step In The Right Direction Toward Equal Enforcement Of Federal Civil Rights Claims In Maine State Courtsby David G. WebbertIn the wake of the Civil War in the 1860s and the civil rights movements of the 1960s, our nation's Constitution and statutes were fundamentally reshaped to make federal civil rights laws an important check on abuse of power and violations of human rights by state and local goverments and officials. The combined effect of these legal reforms-especially the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution; the Civil Rights Act of 1871, codified at Section 1983 of Title 42 (section 1983); and U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s giving teeth to section 1983-has been to subject state and local governments, both in theory and practice, to the requirements of due process, equal protection, free speech, and to other basic human rights.
These applications of federal civil rights have moved the United States much closer to our original ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity for all. In particular, the federal judiciary's enforcement of section 1983 federal civil rights claims, beginning with a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1961,(fn1) has produced a long overdue river of justice washing away centuries of racial apartheid, sex and sexual orientation discrimination, and other stains on the fabric of the American dream. Unsurprisingly, there has also been a substantial pushback against the expansion of federal civil rights under section 1983 by state and local authorities that resent having their power and decisions subject to the checks and balances of federal civil right laws and actions in court to enforce those laws. They see section 1983 as causing a flood of burdensome litigation and not a river of justice.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court's (Law Court) 2011 ruling in Gorham v. Androscoggin County (fn2) reflects a cautious, but welcome move toward ensuring that the transformative federal civil rights under section 1983 are enforced as vigorously in Maine state courts as they are in Maine's federal courts.(fn3)
First, this article reviews the basic underpinnings of a section 1983 claim, including that under controlling federal law almost all such claims may be brought as an independent claim for government conduct even if review is also available under the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure 80B and 80C. State courts cannot refuse to adjudicate section 1983 claims because they prefer to apply more familiar overlapping state laws.
Second, this article explains the settled federal law that claims under section 1983 for violation of federal constitutional procedural rights are independent of state post-deprivation remedies such as Rule 80B and 80C with one narrow exception.
Third, this article explains that the Gorham ruling wrongly stated that it is an open issue whether section 1983 claims brought in state court are subject to the 30-day statute of limitations applicable to Rule 80B and 80C actions,(fn4) unnecessarily creating uncertainty for lower courts on a settled issue of federal law since 1985.(fn5)
The Gorham v. Androscoggin County Decision
Patrick Gorham was a corrections officer for over five years at the Androscoggin County Jail. He was suspended by the county sheriff without pay in late September 2009 for his involvement in two incidents of horseplay. The sheriff made the suspension decision before the county's internal investigation was begun and without providing Gorham any opportunity to defend himself. One of those horseplay incidents had been initiated by a supervisor of Gorham. The County's own investigator found that all of the employees involved perceived the incident as amusing and harmless horseplay. In the other horseplay incident, both employees involved fully consented. Gorham had never been disciplined before and had recently been promoted for good performance.
The county sheriff requested that the county commissioners terminate Mr. Gorham's employment. A pre-termi-nation hearing was held on November 4, 2009, at which the Commissioners voted, two to one, to approve the sheriff's recommendation to terminate Gorham's employment for cause under 30-A M.R.S. § 501(3)(A). One of the three county commissioners voted against termination on the ground that dismissal was an excessive remedy for the errors. More than two weeks later, on November 18, 2009, Gorham received a letter from the county commissioners terminating his employment.
Gorham brought a Rule 80B appeal in the Superior Court on December 18, 2009, alleging wrongful termination under 30-A M.R.S. § 501 and a violation of his constitutional right to procedural due process under section 1983. The Superior Court granted the County's motion to dismiss, finding erroneously that Gorham's section 1983 procedural due process claim was "merely an 'alternate formulation' of his wrongful termination claim" and Rule 80B was the exclusive avenue for judicial review of the commissioners' decision. Furthermore, the trial court dismissed the complaint as untimely, finding that because Gorham was present at the November 4 commissioners' meeting when they voted to terminate his employment the 30-day filing deadline under Rule 80B ran from the date of the meeting, rather than the date of the written decision.
The Law Court vacated the dismissal of the superior court and remanded the case, allowing both of Gorham's claims to proceed. On the issue of the Rule 80B filing deadline, the Law Court concluded that the time limit for seeking judicial review begins to run when a public employee receives the written decision of the county commissioners or personnel board. In a footnote, the Court decided that because Gorham's Rule 80B complaint was timely based on the written decision, it did not need to resolve whether Gorham's section 1983 claim was subject to the thirty-day time period in Rule 80B.
The Court also found it important that the record did not establish "whether the Sheriff provided a pre-suspension opportunity for Gorham to defend his position or argue for a lesser sanction."(fn6) It concluded that "[b]ecause this alleged deprivation of property [suspension without pay] occurred before the Commissioners' administrative hearing, we cannot, on this record, conclude that direct review pursuant to Rule 80B would provide an adequate remedy for Gorham's § 1983 claim," and thus "the [lower] court erred when it concluded that Gorham's § 1983 claim was not independent of his administrative appeal and should be dismissed."(fn7)
1. A section 1983 federal civil rights claim is entitled to special protection even when brought in state court.
The Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution requires state courts to protect the rights of the parties under section 1983.(fn8) Thus, state courts "simply are not free to vindicate the substantive interests underlying a state rule of decision at the expense of the federal right."(fn9)
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that it is first and foremost a question of federal law and not state law under what circumstances a party may maintain an independent claim under section 1983 for violation of a federal right, whether in federal court or in state court. For example, in determining the proper statute of limitations for a section 1983 claim, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the issue should be treated as a federal question because
Congress surely did not intend to assign to state courts and legislatures a conclusive role in the formative functions of defining and characterizing the essential elements of a federal cause of action.(fn10)
Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, civil rights claims brought under section 1983 preempt conflicting state laws and Congress intended them to be "independently enforceable whether or not it duplicates a parallel state remedy."(fn11) The U.S. Supreme Court has also repeatedly emphasized that claims under section 1983 are available even if...