Private Lawyer Advising Cities Has Immunity from Suit

On April 17, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a private attorney retained by the government to carry out its work is entitled to seek qualified immunity from suit under Section 1983.  (Section 1983 provides a cause of action against state actors who violate an individual’s rights under federal law.  See 42 U.S.C. § 1983).  The full opinion, Filarsky v. Delia, 10-1018, 2012 WL 1288731 (U.S. Apr. 17, 2012), can be found here.


 Background Facts

Delia, a firefighter employed by the City of Rialto, California, took extended sick leave after responding to a toxic spill in the summer of 2006. Suspicious that Delia was abusing the City’s sick leave policy, the City hired a private investigator. The private investigator witnessed Delia buying fiberglass insulation and other building supplies, which were purportedly for the construction/renovation of Delia’s home.

After its private investigator reported back, the City hired Filarsky, a private attorney, to initiate a formal investigation and to interview Delia. At the interview, with his attorney present, Delia acknowledged that he bought the supplies while on sick leave, but denied having done any work on his home. In an effort to verify Delia’s story, Filarsky ordered Delia to produce the materials for the fire department official’s inspection. Delia reluctantly complied.

Delia then sued Filarsky, alleging that Filarsky’s order violated the Fourth Amendment. In response, Filarsky claimed that, as the City’s lawyer, he was entitled to the same qualified immunity as any public employee involved in the investigation.

Question Presented & Court Holding

The question before the Court was whether an individual hired by the government to do its work is prohibited from seeking immunity from suit, solely because he works for the government on something other than a permanent or full-time basis.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion; Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor both wrote concurring opinions.  After reviewing common law precedent, the Court reasoned that qualified immunity protections should apply regardless of whether the individual sued as a state actor works for the government full-time or on some other basis.  The Court thus held that Filarsky was entitled to immunity.