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Jose Padilla and Estela Lebron v. John Yoo

May 2, 2012


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California Jeffrey S. White, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 3:08-cv-00035-JSW

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Circuit Judge:



Argued and Submitted June 14, 2010-San Francisco, California

Submission vacated October 18, 2010

Resubmitted December 8, 2011

Before: Raymond C. Fisher and N. Randy Smith, Circuit Judges, and Rebecca R. Pallmeyer, District Judge.*fn1 ,*fn2

Opinion by Judge Fisher


After the September 11, 2011 attacks on the United States, the government detained Jose Padilla, an American citizen, as an enemy combatant. Padilla alleges that he was held incommunicado in military detention, subjected to coercive interrogation techniques and detained under harsh conditions of confinement, all in violation of his constitutional and statutory rights. In this lawsuit, plaintiffs Padilla and his mother, Estela Lebron, seek to hold defendant John Yoo, who was the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) from 2001 to 2003, liable for damages they allege they suffered from these unlawful actions. Under recent Supreme Court law, however, we are compelled to conclude that, regardless of the legality of Padilla's detention and the wisdom of Yoo's judgments, at the time he acted the law was not "sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he [wa]s doing violate[d]" the plaintiffs' rights. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 131 S. Ct. 2074, 2083 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). We therefore hold that Yoo must be granted qualified immunity, and accordingly reverse the decision of the district court.

As we explain below, we reach this conclusion for two reasons. First, although during Yoo's tenure at OLC the constitutional rights of convicted prisoners and persons subject to ordinary criminal process were, in many respects, clearly established, it was not "beyond debate" at that time that Padilla - who was not a convicted prisoner or criminal defendant, but a suspected terrorist designated an enemy combatant and confined to military detention by order of the President - was entitled to the same constitutional protections as an ordinary convicted prisoner or accused criminal. Id. Second, although it has been clearly established for decades that torture of an American citizen violates the Constitution, and we assume without deciding that Padilla's alleged treatment rose to the level of torture, that such treatment was torture was not clearly established in 2001-03.



In early May 2002, Padilla was arrested at Chicago O'Hare International Airport pursuant to a material witness warrant issued by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Compl. ¶ 35. He was transported to New York, where he was held in custody in a federal detention facility. Id.

On June 9, 2002, President George W. Bush issued an order declaring Padilla an "enemy combatant" and directing the Secretary of Defense to take Padilla into military custody. Compl. ¶ 40. The presidential order asserted that Padilla was "closely associated with al Qaeda"; that he had "engaged in conduct that constituted hostile and war-like acts, including conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism that had the aim to cause injury to or adverse effects on the United States"; that he "possesse[d] intelligence, including intelligence about personnel and activities of al Qaeda, that, if communicated to the U.S., would aid U.S. efforts to prevent attacks by al Qaeda on the United States"; that he "represent[ed] a continuing, present and grave danger to the national security of the United States"; and that his detention was "necessary to prevent him from aiding al Qaeda in its efforts to attack the United States or its armed forces, other governmental personnel, or citizens." Memorandum from President George W. Bush to the Secretary of Defense (June 9, 2002), reprinted in Padilla v. Hanft, 423 F.3d 386, 389 (4th Cir. 2005).*fn4

In accordance with the President's order, Padilla was transferred from the federal detention facility in New York to a military brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was held in military custody for more than three and a half years, from June 2002 until January 2006. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 44. For a substantial portion of this period, from June 2002 until March 2004, government officials denied Padilla all contact with persons outside the brig, including his family and legal counsel. Compl. ¶ 56.

On January 5, 2006, Padilla was transferred from the military brig to a federal detention center in Miami, Florida, where he stood trial in federal district court on criminal charges unrelated to the allegations that had been used to justify his military detention. Compl. ¶ 11. In August 2007, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Id. In September 2011, a divided Eleventh Circuit panel affirmed Padilla's conviction, vacated his sentence as unreasonably low and remanded for resentencing. See United States v. Jayyousi, 657 F.3d 1085, 1117-19 (11th Cir. 2011).

Padilla and his mother, Estela Lebron, filed this civil action against John Yoo, in his individual capacity, on January 4, 2008, two years after Padilla's military detention ended. In their first amended complaint, Padilla and Lebron alleged that Padilla was imprisoned in the military brig without charge and without the ability to defend himself or to challenge his conditions of confinement. Compl. ¶ 1. They alleged that during Padilla's detention, he suffered gross physical and psychological abuse upon the orders of high-ranking government officials as part of a systematic program of abusive interroga- tion mirroring the alleged abuses committed at Guatanamo Bay, including extreme isolation; interrogation under threat of torture, deportation and even death; prolonged sleep adjustment and sensory deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures and noxious odors; denial of access to necessary medical and psychiatric care; substantial interference with his ability to practice his religion; and incommunicado detention for almost two years, without access to family, counsel or the courts. Id. They also alleged that Lebron was deprived of virtually all contact with Padilla during his prolonged and allegedly unlawful military detention, in violation of her constitutional rights to familial association and communication. Compl. ¶ 2.

The complaint alleged that Yoo is one of several current and former government officials who abused their high positions to cause Padilla's allegedly unlawful military detention and interrogation. Compl. ¶ 3. From 2001 to 2003, Yoo was Deputy Assistant Attorney General at OLC. Compl. ¶ 13. Padilla and Lebron alleged that Yoo set in motion Padilla's allegedly illegal interrogation and detention, both by formulating unlawful policies for the designation, detention and interrogation of suspected "enemy combatants" and by issuing legal memoranda designed to evade legal restraints on those policies and to immunize those who implemented them. Compl. ¶ 3. They alleged that, in doing so, Yoo abdicated his ethical duties as a government attorney and abandoned his office's tradition of providing objective legal advice to the President. Id.

The complaint alleged that Yoo publicly acknowledged in his book, War By Other Means, that he stepped beyond his role as a lawyer to participate directly in developing policy in the war on terrorism. Compl. ¶ 15. It alleged that Yoo shaped government policy in his role as a key member of a small, secretive and highly influential group of senior administration officials known as the "War Council," which met regularly "to develop policy in the war on terrorism." Id. It alleged that Yoo acted outside the scope of his employment at OLC by taking instructions directly from White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and providing Gonzales with verbal and written advice without first consulting Attorney General John Ashcroft. Compl. ¶ 16. The complaint alleged that, in his role as the de facto head of war-on-terrorism legal issues, Yoo wrote and promulgated a series of memoranda that ultimately led to Padilla's allegedly unlawful treatment, including:

* An October 23, 2001 memorandum from Yoo to Gonzales and Department of Defense General Counsel William J. Haynes regarding Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities Within the United States, which concluded that "the Fourth Amendment had no application to domestic military operations," and that "restrictions outlined in the Fifth Amendment simply do not address actions the Executive takes in conducting a military campaign against the nation's enemies."

* A December 21, 2001 memorandum from Yoo to Haynes regarding Possible Criminal Charges Against American Citizen Who Was a Member of the Al Qaeda Terrorist Organization or the Taliban Militia.

* A January 9, 2002 draft memorandum from Yoo to Haynes on the Application of Treaties and Laws to al Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.

* A January 22, 2002 memorandum to Gonzales signed by then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee but allegedly drafted by Yoo on the Application of Treaties and Laws to al Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.

* A February 26, 2002 memorandum to Haynes signed by Bybee but allegedly created by Yoo on Potential Legal Constraints Applicable to Interrogations of Persons Captured by U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

* A May 2002 OLC memorandum regarding access to counsel and legal mail by detainees held at the naval ...

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