This guest post was authored by Jennifer M. Rosner
Nicholas Delia, a firefighter employed by the City of Rialto missed work after becoming ill on the job. Suspicious of Delia’s extended absence, the City hired a private investigation firm to conduct surveillance on him. When Delia was seen buying fiberglass insulation and other building supplies, the City initiated an internal affairs investigation. It hired Filarsky, a private attorney, to interview Delia. At the interview attended by Delia’s attorney and two fire department officials, Delia acknowledged buying the supplies, but denied having done any work on his home. To verify this claim, Filarsky asked Delia to allow a fire department official to enter his home and view the unused materials. When Delia refused, Filarsky ordered him to bring the materials from his home for the official to see. This prompted Delia’s attorney to threaten a civil rights action against the City and Filarsky. Nonetheless, after the interview concluded, officials followed Delia to his home, where he produced the materials. Delia brought an action in federal court against the City, the Fire Department, Filarsky, and others, alleging that the order to produce the building materials violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Filarsky was sued under 42 U.S.C. §1983, the statute allowing civil rights lawsuits. The District Court granted summary judgment to the individual defendants on the basis of qualified immunity. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed with respect to all individual defendants except Filarsky, concluding that he was not entitled to seek qualified immunity because he was a private attorney, not a City employee.
The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision with respect to Filarsky. In doing so, the Court looked to the general principles of tort immunities and defenses applicable at common law, and the reasons the Court had afforded protection from suit in similar cases in the past. The Court noted that the common law, as it existed in 1871, when Congress enacted the statute allowing Civil rights lawsuits, did not draw a distinction between public agency employees and private individuals engaged in public service in affording protection to those carrying out government responsibilities. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that common law principles of immunity were incorporated into the law and should not be abrogated in the absence of clear legislative intent. As a result, it concluded: “Immunity under § 1983 therefore should not vary depending on whether an individual working for the government does so as a permanent or full-time employee, or on some other basis.”
The Court identified four primary reasons for its decision to recognize immunity under § 1983 as it is recognized under common law:
First, immunity “protect[s] government’s ability to perform its traditional functions.” It does so by helping to avoid “unwarranted timidity” in performance of public duties.
Second, affording immunity not only to public employees but also to others acting on behalf of the government similarly serves to “ensure that talented candidates [are] not deterred by the threat of damages suits from entering public service.” The government’s need to attract talented individuals is not limited to full-time public employees. Indeed, it is often when there is a particular need for specialized knowledge or expertise that thegovernment must look outside its permanent work force to secure the services of private individuals. Because those individuals are free to choose other work that would not expose them to liability for government actions, the most talented candidates might decline public engagements if they did not receive the same immunity enjoyed by their public employee counterparts.
Third, the public interest in ensuring performance of government duties free from the distractions that can accompany lawsuits is implicated whether those duties are discharged by private individuals or permanent government employees.
Finally, distinguishing among those who carry out the public’s business based on their particular relationship with the government creates significant line-drawing problems and can deprive state actors of the ability to “reasonably anticipate when their conduct may give rise to liability for damages.” The Court reasoned that, “[a]n uncertain immunity is little better than no immunity at all.”
The Court found no conflict in its ruling with its previous decisions in Wyatt v. Cole, or Richardson v. McKnight, because: (1) Wyatt involved a defendant with no connection to government and who was pursuing purely private interests; and (2) Richardson involved prison guards employed by a private company to work in a privately run prison facility.