The Yale Law Journal

Northern District of Ohio Thoroughly Reviews Volume 127 Essay

Cody M. Poplin
14 Jan 2018

The ongoing case of Wheatt v. City of East Cleveland, 2017 WL 6031816, (N.D. Ohio Dec. 6, 2017) involves a claim by plaintiffs that they were wrongly convicted of a 1995 murder because defendants failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, and that defendants violated plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by using unduly suggestive identification techniques and by denying them access to the courts. 2017 WL 5187780 (N.D. Ohio Nov. 11, 2017). In previous motions, defendants asserted claims of absolute and qualified immunity as part of their summary judgment motions. Each petition was denied, and in the latest development, the court refused to stay trial proceedings while defendants filed an interlocutory appeal. 

The case involves a wrongful conviction claim with dramatic twists. Nine years after plaintiffs were convicted of murder, the prosecution’s star witness recanted her testimony, stating that she never saw the shooter clearly, and further, that she only identified the defendants because the police officers directed her to do so. Based on materials later found in the East Cleveland Police Department’s files, plaintiffs discovered that defendants had also withheld potentially exculpatory evidence, including statements from eyewitnesses that directly contradicted those of the witnesses presented at trial. Plaintiffs alleged that if the East Cleveland Police Department had not wrongly interfered with their request to access public records, they would have been exonerated earlier.

In this action, the court denied defendants’ request for a stay of trial proceedings while the defendants appealed the order denying qualified immunity because, in the court’s view, defendants’ appeal was frivolous. According to the court, the defendants’ interlocutory appeal did not involve a question of law, but merely one of fact, and therefore was without merit. Judge James S. Gwin not only declined to issue a stay of proceedings on account of the defendants’ failure to meet the standard for interlocutory appeal outlined Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 (1985), he went further, writing that Forsyth itself was likely wrongly decided.

In support of this proposition, Judge Gwin conducted a thorough review of Joanna C. Schwartz’s article, How Qualified Immunity Fails, 127 Yale L.J. 2 (2017). In her article – which includes a discussion of the Northern District of Ohio – Schwartz argues that qualified immunity rarely serves its intended purpose as a shield from discovery and trial. Judge Gwin specifically pointed to Schwartz’s finding that defendants almost always incur defense and discovery costs before qualified immunity defenses become ripe, and extensively quoted Schwartz regarding the effectiveness of the doctrine in constitutional litigation. Gwin then concluded that “years of experience and [Schwartz’s] exhaustive empirical study . . . undermine[] the Supreme Court’s reasoning for allowing this exception to the final judgment rule.” In his opinion, the instant case provided an especially clear example of the shortcomings of interlocutory appeals when district courts deny qualified immunity, as such an appeal was likely to only raise the cost of litigation to the government.