Volume 98, Number 3

June 2023

Administrable Omissions Liability in Public Law

Nika D. Sabasteanski

Public law, specifically constitutional due process law and administrative law, operates against a background presumption of no liability for omissions. To state the inverse, the majority rule is that liability applies only in the case of affirmative government actions. While this was not always the case, following DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services and Heckler v. Chaney in the 1980s, the Court has generally closed off plaintiffs from litigating government failures-to-act. Scholars have pointed at the philosophical absurdity of delineating government acts and omissions, given that in a state as regulated as ours, everything is, at bottom, an affirmative choice. But the federal judiciary has remained fairly unmoved. Against this overriding presumption of no omissions liability, however, the courts have eked out several exceptions in which they are willing to find liability for inaction. While scholars have pointed to reasons why the judiciary has been reluctant to find liability for omissions, this Note looks at why the judiciary has been willing to find liability in certain cases. It identifies the overarching reason to be administrability, motivated by two characteristics that the court either creates or constructs. First, when the court identifies or constructs an affirmative component of an omission, it is more willing to find liability. Second, when there is an ex ante regulation or statute limiting government discretion, the court is similarly persuadable. This Note identifies seven categories across public law that fall into these two areas and in which omissions liability (at least in some way) exists: state-created danger doctrine, special relationships, Monell liability, a blurred line between procedural and substantive due process, abdication of agency statutory duties, failure to perform ministerial duties, and a refusal to initiate rulemaking. As its final contribution, this Note argues that scholars, litigants, and courts should seek to broaden public omissions liability, given that society is plagued with protracted crises resulting from government inaction. Relying on the proxies for administrability that the courts are already comfortable with, the final Part marries administrability with accountability and creates broader categories for each exception to tackle contemporary ills.