Davis v. Scherer
Annotate this Case
468 U.S. 183 (1984)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183 (1984)
Davis v. Scherer
Argued April 16, 1984
Decided June 28, 1984
468 U.S. 183
To avoid conflicts of interest, an order of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (Department) required that proposed outside employment of members of the Florida Highway Patrol be approved by the Department. Appellee, a Highway Patrol employee, originally received permission in 1977 to accept part-time employment with a County Sheriff's Office, but the permission was later revoked. When appellee refused to quit his part-time job, the Director of the Highway Patrol, in 1977, ordered that appellee's employment with the Patrol be terminated. While appellee's administrative appeal was pending, he and the Department settled the dispute, and he was reinstated. But friction between appellee and his superiors continued, and he resigned in 1979 after he was suspended from the Patrol. Appellee then filed the present suit against appellants, certain present and former officials of the Department and the Highway Patrol, seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He requested a declaration that appellants in 1977 had violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by discharging him without a formal pretermination or a prompt post-termination hearing, and he sought an award of money damages. Granting the requested relief, the court ultimately held that appellants had forfeited their qualified immunity from suit under § 1983 because, even though appellee's due process rights were not "clearly established" at the time of his discharge in 1977, appellants had not followed administrative regulations in discharging appellee. The court concluded that therefore appellants' belief in the legality of their conduct was unreasonable, and they were not entitled to qualified immunity. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Held: A plaintiff who seeks damages for violation of constitutional or statutory rights may overcome the defendant official's qualified immunity only by showing that those rights were clearly established at the time of the conduct at issue. Appellee made no such showing. Whether an official may prevail in his qualified immunity defense depends upon the objective reasonableness of his conduct as measured by reference to clearly established law. No other circumstances are relevant to the issue of qualified immunity. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 800. 468 U. S. 190-197.
(a) As the District Court recognized, there was authoritative precedent in the Circuit that the constitutional right of a state employee to a pretermination or a prompt post-termination hearing was not well established at the time of the conduct in question. Nor was it unreasonable, under Fourteenth Amendment due process principles, for the Department to conclude that appellee had been provided with the fundamentals of due process. Thus, the District Court correctly held that appellee demonstrated no violation of his clearly established constitutional rights. Pp. 468 U. S. 191-193.
(b) Appellants did not forfeit their qualified immunity from suit for violation of federal constitutional rights merely because they failed to comply with a clear state regulation. Appellee contended that an official's violation of a clear state statute or regulation, although not itself actionable under § 1983, should deprive the official of qualified immunity from damages for violation of other statutory or constitutional provisions. If such view were adopted, it would disrupt the proper balance between the interests in vindication of citizens' constitutional rights and in public officials' effective performance of their duties. Nor would it always be fair, or sound policy, to demand official compliance with a statute or regulation on pain of money damages. Officials are subject to a plethora of rules, often so voluminous, ambiguous, and contradictory, and in such flux that officials can comply with them only selectively. In these circumstances, officials should not err always on the side of caution. Pp. 468 U. S. 193-196.
710 F.2d 838, reversed and remanded.
POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 468 U. S. 197.