Private attorneys representing government entities are entitled to assert qualified immunity as a defense to civil rights claims, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Tuesday in Filarsky v. Delia. The Court’s decision allows private attorneys to rely on the same protections that their public counterparts use.
The decision reverses a ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that held a private attorney could not rely on qualified immunity.
The City of Rialto, California hired a private attorney to conduct an internal affairs investigation of a firefighter taking sick leave after cleaning up a toxic spill. The firefighter’s superiors suspected that he was not ill because he had been the subject of disciplinary action immediately prior to the spill.
The firefighter claimed that he was forced to allow a warrantless inspection of his home as part of the investigation. He sued both the City and the attorney who conducted the investigation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming violations of his civil rights.
Section 1983 is the enforcement arm of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of rights under federal and state laws, and establishes a cause of action against persons who violate constitutional rights under color of state law.
Speaking for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. cited historical examples of the protections available to persons who worked for the government when Congress passed the statute in 1871. He concluded that the protections provide did not vary depending on whether the person worked full time or part time for the government.
“The government’s need to attract talented individuals is not limited to full-time public employees,” the Chief Justice wrote. “Indeed, it is often when there is a particular need for specialized knowledge or expertise that the government must look outside its permanent workforce to secure the services of private individuals.”
The Court noted that the private lawyer had specialized experience in conducting internal affairs investigations, and that the City had no permanent employees with comparable qualifications.