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More Fifth Circuit Opinions in Doe v. Mckesson, the Baton Rouge Black Lives Matter Protest Case


Tuesday, the Fifth Circuit denied rehearing en banc in Doe v. Mckesson, the tort case stemming from a Black Lives Matter protest, but with three interesting separate opinions. (The en banc vote was as close as it could be—an 8-8 tie, which goes against the petitioner.) First, Judge James Ho's concurrence, which I think is quite right:

[A.] Police officers and firefighters dedicate their lives to protecting others, often putting themselves in harm's way. These are difficult and dangerous jobs, and citizens owe a debt of gratitude to those who are willing and able to perform them. What's more, police officers and firefighters assume the risk that they may be injured in the line of duty. So they are not allowed to recover damages from those responsible for their injuries, under a common law rule known as the professional rescuer doctrine.

"The professional rescuer doctrine, the fireman's rule, is a common law rule that either bars recovery by a professional rescuer injured in responding to an emergency or requires the rescuer to prove a higher degree of culpability in order to recover." Gallup v. Exxon Corp. (5th Cir. 2003) (collecting Louisiana cases). "The Professional Rescuer's Doctrine is a jurisprudential rule that essentially states that a professional rescuer, such as a fireman or a policeman, who is injured in the performance of his duties, 'assumes the risk' of such an injury and is not entitled to damages"—particularly when the "risks arise from the very emergency that the professional rescuer was hired to remedy." Gann v. Matthews (La. Ct. App. 2004).

This doctrine would seem to require immediate dismissal of this suit. After all, there is no dispute that the officer was seriously injured in the line of duty—specifically, while policing a Black Lives Matter protest that unlawfully obstructed a public highway and then turned violent. The officer deserves our profound thanks, sympathy, and respect. But his case would appear to fall squarely within the scope of the doctrine.

None of the panel opinions in this case addressed the professional rescuer doctrine, however—presumably because Mckesson never raised it. I imagine that, if given the chance on remand, he will invoke the doctrine at last, and that the district court will terminate this suit (again) accordingly.

Had Mckesson raised this doctrine at an earlier stage in the suit, there would have been no need to answer the more challenging First Amendment questions that now animate his petition for rehearing en banc. But he did not. So, like the panel, I turn to those questions now.

[B.] Because Mckesson has thus far neglected to invoke the professional rescuer doctrine, the panel confronted novel and interesting First Amendment issues that are arguably worthy of rehearing en banc. But I take some comfort in the fact that, upon closer review of the panel opinions, the constitutional concerns that have generated the most alarm may not be as serious as feared.

The First Amendment indisputably protects the right of every American to condemn police misconduct. And that protection secures the citizen protestor against not only criminal penalty, but civil liability as well. See, e.g., NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. (1982).

But there are important differences between the theory of liability held invalid in Claiborne Hardware and the tort liability permitted by the panel majority here. In Claiborne Hardware, the defendants were sued for leading a boycott of white merchants. State courts subsequently held the defendants liable for all of the economic damages caused by their boycott.

Notably, the theory of liability rejected in Claiborne Hardware was inherently premised on the content of expressive activity. If the defendants had advocated in favor of the white merchants, no court would have held them liable for such speech. So the tort liability theory adopted by the state courts necessarily turned on the content of the defendants' expressive activities. And the Supreme Court rejected this content-based theory of liability as a violation of the First Amendment. See, e.g., id. ("[T]he petitioners certainly foresaw—and directly intended—that the merchants would sustain economic injury as a result of their campaign. … [But t]he right of the States to regulate economic activity could not justify a complete prohibition against a nonviolent, politically motivated boycott designed to force governmental and economic change and to effectuate rights guaranteed by the Constitution itself.").

By contrast, the theory of liability adopted in this case appears to be neutral as to the content of the Black Lives Matter protest. Unlike Claiborne Hardware, liability here turns not on the content of the expressive activity, but on the unlawful obstruction of the public highway and the injuries that foreseeably resulted. This is an important distinction. As Claiborne Hardware itself observed: "While the State legitimately may impose damages for the consequences of violent conduct, it may not award compensation for the consequences of nonviolent, protected activity." "Only those losses proximately caused by unlawful conduct may be recovered."

So in sum: Content-based damages are generally impermissible, as Claiborne Hardware illustrates. But content-neutral rules typically survive First Amendment challenge. See, e.g., Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989) ("Our cases make clear … that even in a public forum the government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner of protected speech, provided the restrictions 'are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and that they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.' ") (collecting cases).

Applying that framework here, I do not understand the panel majority to suggest that Mckesson may be held liable for lawfully protesting police—that would be a textbook violation of established First Amendment doctrine, including Claiborne Hardware—but rather for injuries following the unlawful obstruction of a public highway. As the panel explained, "the criminal conduct allegedly ordered by Mckesson was not itself protected by the First Amendment, as Mckesson ordered the demonstrators to violate a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction by blocking the public highway. As such, no First Amendment protected activity is suppressed by allowing the consequences of Mckesson's conduct to be addressed by state tort law." In the face of such limiting language, any First Amendment concern about the potential reach of the panel majority opinion strikes me as uncertain and speculative.

So if I understand the panel majority's theory of liability correctly, it may be expansive—and it may be wrong as a matter of Louisiana law, as Judge Higginson's typically thoughtful dissent suggests. But it applies with equal force to pro-police protestors (just as it would, say, to pro-life and pro-choice protestors alike) who unlawfully obstruct a public highway and then break out into violence. It is far from obvious, then, that the First Amendment principles articulated in Claiborne Hardware would have any bearing here (and we do not ordinarily grant en banc rehearing to resolve questions of state law).

[C.] Civil disobedience enjoys a rich tradition in our nation's history. But there is a difference between civil disobedience—and civil disobedience without consequence. Citizens may protest. But by protesting, the citizen does not suddenly gain immunity to violate traffic rules or other laws that the rest of us are required to follow. The First Amendment protects protest, not trespass.

That said, this lawsuit should not proceed for an entirely different reason—the professional rescuer doctrine. I trust the district court will faithfully apply that doctrine if and when Mckesson invokes it, and dismiss the suit on remand, just as it did before. It is for that reason that I am comfortable concurring in the denial of rehearing en banc.

Judge James Dennis, joined by Judge James Graves, dissented:

I respectfully dissent from the court's refusal to rehear en banc a 2–1 panel opinion that not only misapplies Louisiana's duty-risk analysis, as Judge Higginson's dissent points out, but also fails to uphold the clearly established First Amendment principles enshrined in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. Claiborne Hardware reaffirmed this country's "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." Thus, when violence or threats of violence "occur[ ] in the context of constitutionally protected activity, … precision of regulation is demanded," including an inquiry into whether the defendant "authorized, ratified, or directly threatened acts of violence." The panel majority demands no such precision. Instead, it appears to apply a free-wheeling form of strict liability having no resemblance to Louisiana law's careful duty-risk analysis, concluding that, because of his association with the demonstrators or his failure to anticipate and prevent the rock throwing incident, Mckesson can be held liable—despite the First Amendment protection historically afforded protest activity—for the acts of a "mystery attacker."

The majority of our colleagues have thus grievously failed to do what should have been done: Take up this case, apply the longstanding protections of the First Amendment, and conclude, as the district court did, that Doe's lawsuit against DeRay Mckesson should be dismissed.

Judge Stephen Higginson, joined by Judge Dennis, also dissented:

The panel opinion holds that the First Amendment affords no protection to McKesson because he was negligent under Louisiana law. I do not believe the Louisiana Supreme Court would recognize a negligence claim in this situation. When a negligence claim is based on the violation of a statute, Louisiana courts allow recovery only if the plaintiff's injury falls within "the scope of protection intended by the legislature." An assault on a police officer by a third-party is not the "particular risk" addressed by the highway obstruction statute. Absent the breach of this statutory duty, it is unclear on what basis the panel opinion finds that the protest was foreseeably violent.

To the extent that the panel opinion creates a new Louisiana tort duty, this is "a policy decision" for Louisiana courts—not this court—to make. Even if we could make this policy decision ourselves, the panel opinion does not weigh the "moral, social, and economic factors" the Louisiana Supreme Court has identified as relevant, including "the nature of defendant's activity" and "the historical development of precedent."

In light of the vital First Amendment concerns at stake, I respectfully suggest that these considerations counsel against our court recognizing a new Louisiana state law negligence duty here, at least in a case where argument from counsel has not been received. Protestors of all types and causes have been blocking streets in Louisiana for decades without Louisiana courts recognizing any similar claim.

Very interesting stuff, and I'm sure it will be read by the Supreme Court in deciding whether to hear the case. For my thinking on this, see these posts:

  1. The Weird Litigation Posture of the Doe v. Mckesson / Baton Rouge Black Lives Matter Protest Case, which deals with the professional rescuer doctrine.
  2. Negligence Claims Brought Against Protest Organizers: More on the Tort Law Side of Doe v. Mckesson, which discusses why (apart from the professional rescuer doctrine) the tort law theory behind the case is plausible.
  3. When Does First Amendment Preempt Negligence Liability?, which generally argues for the content-based / content-neutral distinction that Judge Ho's opinion discusses.