At U.S. Supreme Court, Important Victory For Mentally Ill Individuals Confronted By Police

Press Release

SEATTLE- A team of lawyers, including Stoel Rives attorneys, achieved a significant victory for the mentally ill in the U.S. Supreme Court today.

The Supreme Court issued its decision in City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan against a backdrop of recent news stories describing a series of officer-involved shootings of the mentally ill.

The case stems from an incident in August 2008 when two San Francisco police officers arrived at Sheehan’s residence to assist a social worker in transporting her to a hospital for treatment. Sheehan was unwilling to leave her room. Rather than waiting for non-lethal backup to arrive or utilizing de-escalation techniques for confrontations with mentally ill individuals, the officers forced their way into Sheehan’s room, pepper sprayed her and shot her multiple times, including once while Sheehan was on the floor. Sheehan survived but sustained permanent physical injuries.

On behalf of Sheehan, Leonard Feldman of Peterson Wampold Rosato Luna Knopp, John Burris and Ben Nisenbaum of the Law Offices of John L. Burris, Stoel Rives lawyers Jill Bowman and Hunter Ferguson, and Michael Avery of Suffolk Law School argued in the Supreme Court that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulates police conduct when officers confront individuals like Sheehan who are mentally ill.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals previously ruled that Sheehan should have the opportunity to present her case to a jury that the officers’ actions violated her rights under the ADA as a person with disabilities. The Supreme Court rejected San Francisco’s attempt to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s opinion and criticized San Francisco for presenting a “different argument” in its merits briefing from the argument it pressed in the Ninth Circuit. In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia agreed with that portion of the Court’s ruling, stating that the Court should “not reward such bait-and-switch tactics.” As a result, Sheehan’s ADA claim will proceed in the trial court as the Ninth Circuit previously ruled. 

 “We are very pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Sheehan’s ADA claim,” said Leonard Feldman, Sheehan’s lead attorney in the U.S. Supreme Court and the lawyer who argued the case. “Mentally ill individuals confronted by police are entitled to the substantial protections of the ADA, and the Supreme Court’s decision allows individuals like Sheehan to pursue claims against public entities when their officers ignore the statute’s anti-discriminatory provisions.”

Sheehan’s lead trial attorney, John Burris, added: “Sheehan’s rights were egregiously violated by police officers who ignored their training regarding confrontations with mentally ill individuals. We are looking forward to presenting Sheehan’s ADA claim to a jury now that San Francisco has exhausted the appellate process.”

Sheehan drew amicus support from numerous disability rights and mental health groups, civil rights organizations, and police accountability projects. The case was featured in stories by the Associated Press, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Slate Magazine, The Guardian, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, KQED, Aljazeera America and the ACLU.

A link to the Court’s full decision is available here, and the brief submitted by Sheehan’s lawyers is available here

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