It has been awhile since the United States Supreme Court dealt with an ADA question. A fact I am happy with as predicting what the United States Supreme Court does with an ADA question is impossible since the ADA does not break down along traditional liberal conservative lines.

This particular blog entry focuses on a case that I came very close to blogging on before. In fact, I came so close to blogging on this one before, that I was absolutely stunned to find out that I had not blogged on it. At any rate, the case is Sheehan v. City and County of San Francisco.

As is my usual practice, I have broken down the blog entry into categories: facts; issues presented; holdings; court’s reasoning; and takeaways. The reader is free to focus on any or all of these categories.


The plaintiff, a woman in her mid-50s suffering from severe mental illness, lived in a group home. Her social worker became concerned about her apparently deteriorating condition to the point where he summoned police for help in transporting her to a mental health facility for 72 hour involuntary commitment for evaluation and treatment under California state law. The social worker deemed the plaintiff gravely disabled because she was not taking her medication and taking care of her self and was also a danger to others because she had threatened him when he attempted to perform a welfare check on her. When the police officers arrived, they entered the plaintiff’s room without a warrant in order to confirm the social worker’s assessment and to take her into custody. The plaintiff reacted violently to the officers presence by grabbing a knife and threatening to kill the officers. She also told the officer that she did not wish to be detained in a mental health facility. All of which forced the officer to retreat to the hallway outside the plaintiff’s closed door for their safety. The officer called for backup, but rather than waiting for backup or taking other actions to maintain the current situation or de-escalate the situation, the officers instead drew their weapons and forced their way back into the plaintiff’s room, presumably for the purpose of disarming, subduing, arresting, and preventing her escape. The plaintiff once again threatened the officers with a knife causing the officers to shoot the plaintiff five or six times. She then filed a § 1983 action against the officers and the city asserting violation of the fourth amendment and the ADA as well as tort and statutory claims under California law. The District Court granted summary judgment to the defendants and the plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Issues presented:

1. Did the first entry into the plaintiff’s room violate the fourth amendment?

2. Did the second entry into the plaintiff’s room create a triable issue of fact that the fourth amendment was violated?

3. Is there a triable issue of fact that the police officers used excessive force in violation of the fourth amendment when they resorted to using deadly force to shoot the plaintiff?

4. If the police officers arguably used excessive force in violation of fourth amendment when they resorted to using deadly force to shoot the plaintiff, are they protected by qualified immunity?

5. Does title II of the ADA apply to arrests?

6. If title II of the ADA does apply to arrests, is there liability for violating title II of the ADA when the officers forced their way back into the plaintiff’s room without taking the plaintiff’s mental illness into account or employing generally accepted police practices for peaceably resolving a confrontation with the person with a mental illness?


1. No

2. Yes

3. Yes

4. Not as a matter of law

5. Yes

6. There could be; a factual question for the jury to decide

Court’s Reasoning

Issue 1

1. The emergency aid exception to the fourth amendment allows for a warrantless search or seizure in a person’s home where the officers have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that a person is in need of emergency medical assistance and the search or seizure is conducted in a reasonable manner. Under the facts of this case, while officers are expected to air on the side of caution, nevertheless, the officers could reasonably believe that the plaintiff’s situation presented a genuine emergency and that entering as they did was a reasonable means of providing her with assistance. After all, the officers knew that the plaintiff was off her medication, was not taking care of herself, had acted in a threatening manner towards the social worker, and was viewed by the social worker as being gravely disabled and in need of temporary, involuntarily hospitalization to receive psychological evaluation and treatment. They also knocked and announced that they were police officers, used a pass key supplied by the social worker to let themselves in so that they could assess the situation, did not have their weapons drawn when they entered, and had no reason to believe that their entry would trigger a violent confrontation.

Issues 2-3

1. If the officers were acting under the emergency aid exception, they are required to carry out the search or seizure in a reasonable manner.

2. If the officers were acting under the exigent circumstances exception, they are required to use reasonable force.

3. No meaningful distinction exists between a search or seizure being conducted in a reasonable manner and the fourth amendment’s requirement that such as search and seizure be carried out without the use of excessive force.

4. Even where there is a lawful defensive use of deadly force, there can be an independent fourth amendment violation when the officers intentionally or recklessly provoke a violent confrontation through their actions.

5. A reasonable jury could find that it was not reasonable for the officers to force a second entry without taking the plaintiff’s mental illness into account and to do so in an apparent departure from police officer training.

6. The court was persuaded by the plaintiff’s arguments: once the officers exited her room and her door was shut, the threat to the safety of the officers or others was under control and there was no need to force a confrontation; all of the information known to the officers suggested that the plaintiff only wanted to be left alone in her home since she had shown no desire to leave her room; even though she had acted in a threatening manner, she was doing that only to those who had entered her home without permission; and the officers were also aware that the plaintiff, whom they knew to be both mentally ill and emotionally disturbed, was not likely to respond rationally to police officers breaking down her door.

7. The police training that officers receive is contrary to the actions of what the officer did with respect to the second entry.

Issue 4

1. Relevant case law is such that a competent police officer would have been on notice that it is unreasonable to forcibly enter the home of an armed person with mental illness who has been acting irrationally and has threatened anyone who entered when there was no objective need for immediate entry. Accordingly, the court could not say that as a matter of law qualified immunity for the officers existed.

Issue 5

1. While there is a split among the circuits, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the majority of circuits addressing the question (11th Cir., 4th Cir., 10th Cir., and 6th Cir.), that title II of the ADA does apply to arrests since title II of the ADA applies to services, programs or activities, which has been interpreted to encompass anything a public entity does.

Issue 6

1. There are two types of title II claims when it comes to arrests. First, wrongful arrest where someone is arrested because the police erroneously perceives the effects of the disability as criminal activity. Second, reasonable accommodation where that police failed to reasonably accommodate a person’s disability in the course of investigation or arrest thereby causing the person to suffer greater injury or indignity in that process than other arrestees.

2. The plaintiff asserted that the officers should’ve respected her comfort zone, engage in nonthreatening communication, and used the passage of time to diffuse the situation rather than precipitate a deadly confrontation. The court recognized that assertion and also acknowledged that the officers were forced to make split-second decisions. Even so, a reasonable jury could find that the situation had been diffused efficiently following the initial retreat from the plaintiff’s room so as to allow the officers an opportunity to wait for backup and to employ less confrontational tactics, such as the accommodations mentioned by the plaintiff in her assertions.


1. This is not the first time that had I have blogged on police liability with respect to persons with disabilities. You can find other blog entries on the subject here, here, here, and here.

2. Police training is critical. In this case, the City was able to escape liability for fourth amendment violations because the city had proper training in place and in this situation, the officers did not carry out the training.

3. I’m inclined to agree with the Ninth Circuit, based upon the overwhelming case law that title II basically applies to everything that a public entity does, saying title II of the ADA does apply to arrests. Even so, that isn’t the end of the matter because of the nature of what it means for a policeman or policewoman to do his or her job. For example, we have discussed previously that one line of thought might be to suspend the ADA until the situation is under control. Once the situation is under control, then all the rules of the ADA apply.

4. As mentioned previously in our other blog entries noted above, failure to accommodate a person with a disability in the context of police work may in addition to allegations of violation of title II of the ADA may also lead to allegations of violating constitutional rights, such in this case the fourth amendment. Therefore, police forces need to be thoroughly acquainted with the provisions of title II of the ADA and, for that matter, title III of the ADA as well.

5. The Supreme Court has now granted certiorari in this case. Here are the two questions before it:

A. Does title II of the ADA require law enforcement officers to provide accommodation to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody?

B. Was it clearly established under the fourth amendment that a search could be unreasonable even where excigent circumstances existed?

Very interesting as to how the questions are phrased. If the first question had been phrased in terms of whether title II applies to arrests, that might lead to one conclusion. The fact that it is phrased the way it is suggest that we may be looking at the approach of suspending the ADA until the situation is under control. That said, predicting the Supreme Court in ADA matters, and most certainly in ADA matters outside of employment, is extraordinarily difficult, and I am not going to wade into those waters.

With respect to the second issue, that is clearly going to the qualified immunity piece and the § 1983 claims of the fourth amendment violation. That will come down to whether the Supreme Court views the relevant case law cited by the Ninth Circuit in the same way as the Ninth Circuit.