Results: What are the key characteristics of qualified immunity appeals?

We measured several procedural details about qualified immunity appeals:

How long are cases involving qualified immunity appeals?

The median duration of a qualified immunity lawsuit—from the initial complaint filing to the appeal decision—was three years and two months. 1  This is 23% longer than the typical civil suit up on federal appeal. 2 And as shown in Figure 5, many lawsuits had been open even longer when the appeal was decided: Nearly 29% had been open for more than four years, while 8% had been open for more than six.

Figure 5: Qualified Immunity Litigation Often Takes Years
Seventy percent of qualified immunity lawsuits on appeal had been open longer than the median civil appeal

Time from complaint to appeal decision Median duration forall civil appeals Number of appeals 0 140 120 100 80 60 40 20 1 Year 2 Years 3 Years 4 Years 5 Years 6 Years 7 Years 8 Years 10+ Years 9 Years

Note: Lawsuits can have multiple appeals and thus appear multiple times in this chart. 

How many qualified immunity appeals are interlocutory appeals?

As detailed above, government defendants invoking qualified immunity have a special right to immediately appeal the denial of qualified immunity. These special appeals represented some 96% of all qualified immunity appeals filed by defendants (see Figure 6) and roughly a third of qualified immunity appeals overall—nearly 2,000 total.

Figure 6: Nearly All Defendant Appeals Are Interlocutory

Plaintiff won interim decision and defendant filed interlocutory appeal 96% Plaintiff won final judgment and defendant appealed 4%

When do qualified immunity appeals occur?

Appeals involving qualified immunity tend to occur early in lawsuits (see Figure 7). Twenty percent of the appeals we studied followed a ruling on a motion to dismiss filed by government defendants. These motions occur before the two sides in a lawsuit have exchanged information about their witnesses and evidence (i.e., before “discovery”). The point of these motions is to weed out any fatally flawed lawsuits (or individual claims). With qualified immunity, the fatal flaw that defendants argue at the motion to dismiss stage is that they simply cannot be sued because they are entitled to immunity.

Another 69% followed a ruling on a motion for summary judgment, which is a motion where one side argues that the facts are undisputed and the judge can rule without a trial to determine them; instead, this type of motion argues, the judge can simply apply the law to the known facts. Often, before deciding a summary judgment motion, judges permit some fact-finding through discovery if the two sides disagree about key facts, though this is typically less than in a full-blown trial.

 Just 4% of qualified immunity appeals occurred following a trial. In other words, only 4% happened after plaintiffs were allowed to make their full case before the court or a jury.

Figure 7: Stage of Litigation at Time of Appeal
Most qualified immunity appeals occur prior to trial

Earliest stage of litigation Latest stage of litigation Pre-trial appeals 20.4% 69.3% 6.0% 4.3% Motion to dismiss Summary judgment Both motion to dismiss and summary judgment Post-trial

How often do plaintiffs in qualified immunity appeals have attorneys?

Plaintiffs represented themselves without aid of an attorney in roughly 20% of qualified immunity appeals. However, as Figure 8 shows, the rate of self-represented plaintiffs varied considerably by circuit: Only 6% of plaintiffs represented themselves in the 1st Circuit, compared to 33% in the 5th.

Figure 8: Plaintiffs Act as Their Own Attorneys at Different Rates Across Circuits

1st Circuit 2nd Circuit 3rd Circuit 4th Circuit 5th Circuit 6th Circuit 7th Circuit 8th Circuit 9th Circuit 10th Circuit 11th Circuit 6% 18% 22% 13% 33% 9% 22% 11% 24% 25% 18%

How often do courts publish opinions in qualified immunity appeals?

Circuit courts have discretion to publish, or not publish, their opinions. This matters because, in most circuits, only published opinions create binding precedent—that is, principles or rules, including clearly established law, that the court and the federal district courts under it are expected to follow in future cases. 3  Overall, 35% of the qualified immunity opinions we studied were published, significantly more than the 13% publication rate across all civil appeals. 4  Three circuits went even further: The 1st, 7th, and 8th all published more than 75% of their qualified immunity opinions. 5  On the other hand, the 11th Circuit published fewer than 20% of its qualified immunity opinions. (See Figure 9.)

Figure 9: Circuits Publish Qualified Immunity Opinions at Vastly Different Rates

86% 35% 25% 41% 29% 32% 77% 81% 22% 33% 17% 1st Circuit 2nd Circuit 3rd Circuit 4th Circuit 5th Circuit 6th Circuit 7th Circuit 8th Circuit 9th Circuit 10th Circuit 11th Circuit