Supreme Court Watch: Filarsky 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.
- Opinion analysis: A presumption of qualified immunity for private actors (scotusblog.com)
- Court rules for private lawyer hired by CA city (kansascity.com)
- Supreme Court Watch: Filarsky v. Delia (logarchism.com)
- Supreme Court Justices Mull Issue of Qualified Immunity for Private Attorneys Conducting Investigations for Public Clients (lesliebrodie.wordpress.com)
- Professional Responsibility Blog: Supreme Court considers issue of qualified immunity for lawyers (lesliebrodie.wordpress.com)
- Court Weighs Protections for Lawyers Hired by Cities (nytimes.com)
- Supreme Court Watch: The Final Act
- Supreme Court Watch: Diverse Thoughts
- Supreme Court Watch: Salinas v. Texas
- Supreme Court Watch: United States v. Windsor
- Supreme Court Watch: Hollingsworth v. Perry
- Supreme Court Watch: Shelby County v. Holder
- Supreme Court Watch: Millbrook v. United States
- Supreme Court Watch: Levin v. United States
- Supreme Court Watch: Maracich v. Spears
- Supreme Court Watch: Missouri v. McNeely
About dcpetterson (198 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson