Filarsky v. Delia
566 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
Respondent, a firefighter employed by the City of Rialto, brought an action under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against the City, the Fire Department, the private attorney hired by the City, and other individuals. The district court granted summary judgment to the individual defendants based on qualified immunity. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the attorney the City hired was not entitled to seek qualified immunity because he was a private attorney, not a City employee. At issue before the Court was whether an individual hired by the government to do its work was prohibited from seeking qualified immunity, solely because he worked for the government on something other than a permanent full-time basis. The Court held that a private individual temporarily retained by the government to carry out its work was entitled to seek qualified immunity from suit under section 1983. Therefore, the Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

FILARSKY v. DELIA

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 10–1018. Argued January 17, 2012—Decided April 17, 2012

Respondent Delia, a firefighter employed by the City of Rialto, California, 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 petitioner Filarsky, a private attorney, to interview Delia. At the interview, which Delia’s attorney and two fire department officials also attended, Delia acknowledged buying the supplies, but denied having done any work on his home. To verify Delia’s 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 out of 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 under 42 U. S. C. §1983 against the City, the Fire Department, Filarsky, and other individuals, alleging that the order to produce the building materials violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The District Court granted summary judgment to the individual defendants on the basis of qualified immunity. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit 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.

Held: A private individual temporarily retained by the government to carry out its work is entitled to seek qualified immunity from suit under §1983. Pp. 4−16.

     (a) In determining whether the Court of Appeals made a valid distinction between City employees and Filarsky for qualified immunity purposes, this Court looks to the general principles of tort immunities and defenses applicable at common law, and the reasons the Court has afforded protection from suit under §1983. See Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U. S. 409 . The common law as it existed in 1871, when Congress enacted §1983, did not draw a distinction between full-time public servants and private individuals engaged in public service in according protection to those carrying out government responsibilities. Government at that time was smaller in both size and reach, had fewer responsibilities, and operated primarily at the local level. Government work was carried out to a significant extent by individ- uals who did not devote all their time to public duties, but instead pur- sued private callings as well. In according protection from suit to individuals doing the government’s work, the common law did not draw distinctions based on the nature of a worker’s engagement with the government. Indeed, examples of individuals receiving immunity for actions taken while engaged in public service on a temporary or occasional basis are as varied as the reach of government itself. Common law principles of immunity were incorporated into §1983 and should not be abrogated absent clear legislative intent. See Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U. S. 522 . 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. Pp. 4–11.

     (b) Nothing about the reasons this Court has given for recognizing immunity under §1983 counsels against carrying forward the common law rule. First, the government interest in avoiding “unwarranted timidity” on the part of those engaged in the public’s business— which has been called “the most important special government immunity-producing concern,” Richardson v. McKnight, 521 U. S. 399 —is equally implicated regardless of whether the individual sued as a state actor works for the government full-time or on some other basis. Second, affording immunity to those acting on the government’s behalf serves to “ ‘ensure that talented candidates [are] not deterred by the threat of damages suits from entering public service.’ ” Id., at 408. The government, in need of specialized knowledge or expertise, may look outside its permanent workforce to secure the services of private individuals. But 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,’ ” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U. S. 635 . Pp. 11−13.

     (c) This conclusion is not contrary to Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U. S. 158 , or Richardson v. McKnight, 521 U. S. 399 . Wyatt did not implicate the reasons underlying recognition of qualified immunity because the defendant in that case had no connection to government and pursued purely private ends. Richardson involved the unusual circumstances of prison guards employed by a private company who worked in a privately run prison facility. Nothing of the sort is involved here, or in the typical case of an individual hired by the government to assist in carrying out its work. Pp. 13−15.

621 F. 3d 1069, reversed.

     Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Ginsburg, J., and Sotomayor, J., filed concurring opinions.

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