Siegert v. Gilley
500 U.S. 226 (1991)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Siegert v. Gilley, 500 U.S. 226 (1991)

Siegert v. Gilley

No. 90-96

Argued Feb. 19, 1991

Decided May 23, 1991

500 U.S. 226

Syllabus

In seeking to become "credentialed" in his new job at an Army hospital, petitioner Siegert, a clinical psychologist, asked his former employer, a federal hospital, to provide job performance and other information to his new employer. Respondent Gilley, Siegert's supervisor at his former job, responded with a letter declaring that he could not recommend Siegert because he was inept, unethical, and untrustworthy. After he was denied credentials and his federal service employment was terminated, Siegert filed a damages action against Gilley in the District Court, alleging, inter alia, that, under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents,403 U. S. 388, Gilley had caused an infringement of his "liberty interests" in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment "by maliciously and in bad faith publishing a defamatory per se statement . . . which [he] knew to be untrue." Gilley filed a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment, asserting, among other things, the defense of qualified immunity under Harlow v. Fitzgerald,457 U. S. 800, and contending that Siegert's factual allegations did not state the violation of any constitutional right "clearly established" at the time of the complained-of actions, see id. at 457 U. S. 818. The court ultimately found Siegert's allegations to be sufficient, but the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with instructions that the case be dismissed. Although assuming that bad-faith motivation would suffice to make Gilley's actions in writing the letter a violation of Siegert's clearly established constitutional rights, the court held that Siegert's particular allegations were insufficient under its "heightened pleading standard" to overcome Gilley's qualified immunity claim.

Held: The Court of Appeals properly concluded that the District Court should have dismissed Siegert's suit because he had not overcome Gilley's qualified immunity defense. Siegert failed to allege the violation of a clearly established constitutional right -- indeed, of any constitutional right at all -- since, under Paul v. Davis,424 U. S. 693, 424 U. S. 708-709, injury to reputation, by itself, is not a protected "liberty" interest. He therefore failed to satisfy the necessary threshold inquiry in the determination of a qualified immunity claim. See, e.g., Harlow, supra, at 457 U. S. 818. Thus, although the Court of Appeals reached the correct result, it should not have assumed without deciding the necessary preliminary

Page 500 U. S. 227

issue and then proceeded to examine the sufficiency of Siegert's allegations. Siegert's claim failed at an analytically earlier stage of the inquiry. Pp. 500 U. S. 231-235.

282 U.S.App.D.C. 392, 895 F.2d 797 (CADC 1990) affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, and in Parts II and III of which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 500 U. S. 236.

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