Westfall v. Erwin
Annotate this Case
484 U.S. 292 (1988)
U.S. Supreme Court
Westfall v. Erwin, 484 U.S. 292 (1988)
Westfall v. Erwin
Argued November 2, 1987
Decided January 13, 1988
484 U.S. 292
Respondents, husband and wife, brought a state law tort suit in state court alleging that, while working as a federal civilian employee at an Army Depot, the husband received chemical burns when he was exposed to toxic soda ash that was improperly stored at the depot as a result of the negligence of petitioner supervisors. The Federal District Court to which petitioners removed the action held that petitioners were absolutely immune from suit, since the alleged tort was committed while they were acting within the scope of their employment, and granted summary judgment in their favor. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a federal employee enjoys immunity only if the challenged conduct, in addition to being within the scope of the employee's duties, is also a discretionary act.
Held: Conduct by federal officials must be discretionary in nature, as well as being within the scope of their employment, before the conduct is absolutely immune from state law tort liability. See Doe v. McMillan, 412 U. S. 306. Granting absolute immunity for nondiscretionary functions would not further the official immunity doctrine's central purpose of promoting effective government by insulating the decisionmaking process from the harassment of prospective litigation which could make federal officials unduly timid in carrying out their duties. The threat of tort liability cannot detrimentally inhibit conduct that is not the product of independent judgment, and it is only when officials exercise decisionmaking discretion that potential liability may shackle the fearless, vigorous, and effective administration of governmental policies. Petitioners' alternative argument that the discretionary function requirement is satisfied if the precise conduct of the federal official is not prescribed by law and the official exercises "minimal discretion" is rejected. This approach loses sight of the underlying purpose of the official immunity doctrine by ignoring the balance of potential benefits and costs under the circumstances, and, if adopted, would render the discretionary function requirement essentially meaningless. Virtually all official acts involve some modicum of choice, and yet such acts will often be largely unaffected by the prospect of tort liability, thereby making the provision of absolute immunity unnecessary and unwise. Here, since no evidence was presented controverting respondents' assertion that petitioners were not involved
in discretionary conduct, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether that conduct is entitled to absolute immunity, and the Court of Appeals was correct in reversing the grant of summary judgment. Pp. 484 U. S. 295-300.
785 F.2d 1551, affirmed.
MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.