On Tues­day, the Supreme Court handed down a deci­sion on Filarsky v. Delia, a case we dis­cussed here back in Jan­u­ary. In a rare unan­i­mous deci­sion,

The Supreme Court ruled on Tues­day that pri­vate attor­neys or oth­ers tem­porar­ily hired by local gov­ern­ments to con­duct inves­ti­ga­tions can assert immu­nity from civil rights law­suits alleg­ing con­sti­tu­tional vio­la­tions and seek­ing damages.

The high court ruled such indi­vid­u­als were not barred from get­ting immu­nity solely because they do not work for the gov­ern­ment on a per­ma­nent or full-​​time basis.

The case involved Nicholas B. Delia, a Rialto fire­fighter who sus­tained injuries while work­ing to con­trol a toxic spill. He took more time off to recover than his super­vi­sors thought he needed, and they alleged he used the time for home repairs rather than for recu­per­a­tive ther­apy. In the course of inves­ti­ga­tion, Delia alleged his Fourth Amend­ment rights were vio­lated by Steve A. Filarsky, an attor­ney hired by the city of Rialto.

Filarsky argued that he was immune to such charges, because the prin­ci­ple of “qual­i­fied immu­nity” shields gov­ern­ment employ­ees from pros­e­cu­tion even if they vio­late someone’s Con­sti­tu­tional rights. Delia responded that Filarsky, being a sub­con­trac­tor and not an actual employee, did not fall under the pro­tec­tions of qual­i­fied immu­nity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Cir­cuit agreed with Delia. Filarsky appealed to the Supreme Court, and on Tues­day, the Court over­turned the Ninth Circuit.

The case is note­wor­thy because

Filarsky effec­tively estab­lishes a pre­sump­tion that all per­sons per­form­ing pub­lic func­tions on behalf of the gov­ern­ment are enti­tled to the immu­ni­ties rec­og­nized under § 1983.

There is an insight­ful analy­sis avail­able at SCO­TUS­blog. The argu­ments there are fas­ci­nat­ing; I can­not do them as much jus­tice as does Bradley Joon­deph. I encour­age you to read his analy­sis for yourself.

The deci­sion in this case was writ­ten by Chief Jus­tice John Roberts, with sep­a­rate con­cur­ring opin­ions by Jus­tices Ruth Bader Gins­burg and Sonia Sotomayor. In brief, the deci­sion rested on the case law stip­u­lat­ing that gov­ern­ment employ­ees must be free to fol­low the legal demands of their offices, with­out fear of pros­e­cu­tion for fol­low­ing those demands. The deci­sion fur­ther holds that part-​​time fed­eral employ­ees deserve the same pro­tec­tions as full-​​time employ­ees, and that con­trac­tors have the same pro­tec­tions as employees.

Note that it is still pos­si­ble to sue the gov­ern­ment itself for a redress of griev­ances. And the immu­nity does not extend to behav­iors out­side the legal demands of the employ­ees’ offices. One can­not, how­ever, hold a func­tionary respon­si­ble for merely fol­low­ing orders.