U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court: Private Lawyer Advising City Has Same Immunity from Suit as Public Employees

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on behalf of a private lawyer who advised a California town, saying he is entitled to the same qualified immunity as a public employee.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion (PDF) in Filarsky v. Delia. The common law rule, he wrote, did not draw a distinction between immunity for public servants and private individuals engaged in public service. That rule should be carried forward in suits claiming constitutional violations under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, he said.

The case involves an immunity claim by lawyer Steve Filarsky, who had been retained by the city of Rialto, Calif., to work on internal investigations of employees. Firefighter Nicholas Delia had sued Filarsky for an alleged Fourth Amendment violation in a probe to determine whether Delia was abusing sick leave. A private investigator had observed Delia purchasing building supplies while on leave, but the firefighter claimed he had not used them. Filarsky ordered him to produce the unused materials for inspection, and the firefighter complied by placing them on his lawn.

Filarsky claimed qualified immunity, but the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against him. The Supreme Court disagreed with the 9th Circuit, saying Filarsky was entitled to the same immunity as Rialto employees.

“Because government employees will often be protected from suit by some form of immunity, those working alongside them could be left holding the bag—facing full liability for actions taken in conjunction with government employees who enjoy immunity for the same activity,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts said public policy supported such immunity. He cited a need to perform government responsibilities “free from the distractions that can accompany even routine lawsuits” and the danger of discouraging talented people from accepting government work.

The ABA had filed an amicus brief in the case supporting qualified immunity.

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