Wyatt v. Cole
504 U.S. 158 (1992)

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OCTOBER TERM, 1991

Syllabus

WYATT v. COLE ET AL.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

No. 91-126. Argued January 14, 1992-Decided May 18, 1992

With the assistance of respondent Robbins, an attorney, respondent Cole filed a complaint under the Mississippi replevin statute against his partner, petitioner Wyatt. Mter Cole refused to comply with a state court order to return to Wyatt property seized under the statute, Wyatt brought suit in the Federal District Court under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, challenging the state statute's constitutionality and seeking injunctive relief and damages. Among other things, the court held the statute unconstitutional and assumed that Cole was subject to liability under Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U. S. 922, in which this Court ruled that private defendants invoking state replevin, garnishment, and attachment statutes later declared unconstitutional act under color of state law for § 1983 liability purposes. The court also intimated that, but did not decide whether, Robbins was subject to § 1983 liability. However, Lugar had left open the question whether private defendants are entitled to qualified immunity from suit in such cases, see id., at 942, n. 23, and the District Court held that respondents were entitled to qualified immunity at least for conduct arising prior to the replevin statute's invalidation. The Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of qualified immunity to respondents without revisiting the question of their § 1983 liability.

Held:

1. Qualified immunity from suit, as enunciated by this Court with respect to government officials, is not available to private defendants charged with § 1983 liability for invoking state replevin, garnishment, or attachment statutes. Immunity for private defendants was not so firmly rooted in the common law and was not supported by such strong policy reasons as to create an inference that Congress meant to incorporate it into § 1983. See, e. g., Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U. S. 622, 637. Even if there were sufficient common law support to conclude that private defendants should be entitled to a good faith and/or probable cause defense to suits for unjustified harm arising out of the misuse of governmental processes, that would still not entitle respondents to what they obtained in the courts below: the type of objectively determined, immediately appealable, qualified immunity from suit accorded government officials under, e. g., Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S.


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800, and Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U. S. 511. Moreover, the policy concerns mandating qualified immunity for officials in such cases-the need to preserve the officials' ability to perform their discretionary functions and to ensure that talented candidates not be deterred by the threat of damages suits from entering public service-are not applicable to private parties. Although it may be that private defendants faced with § 1983 liability under Lugar, supra, could be entitled to an affirmative good faith defense, or that § 1983 suits against private, rather than governmental, parties could require plaintiffs to carry additional burdens, those issues are neither before the Court nor decided here. pp. 163-169.

2. On remand, it must be determined, at least, whether respondents, in invoking the replevin statute, acted under color of state law within the meaning of Lugar, supra. P. 169.

928 F.2d 718, reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 169. REHNQUIST, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER and THOMAS, JJ., joined, post, p. 175.

Jim Waide argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Douglas M. Magee and Alan B. Morrison.

Joseph Leray McNamara argued the cause and filed a brief for respondents.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U. S. 922 (1982), we left open the question whether private defendants charged with 42 U. S. C. § 1983 liability for invoking state replevin, garnishment, and attachment statutes later declared unconstitutional are entitled to qualified immunity from suit. 457 U. S., at 942, n. 23. We now hold that they are not.

I

This dispute arises out of a soured cattle partnership. In July 1986, respondent Bill Cole sought to dissolve his partnership with petitioner Howard Wyatt. When no agreement could be reached, Cole, with the assistance of an


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