The U.S. Supreme Court recently expanded immunity from suit to private attorneys and other individuals hired by the government to carry out its work. The case, Filarsky v. Delia, will have a wide impact on cities and towns across New Jersey, particularly smaller communities that hire private New Jersey attorneys and other consultants on a part-time or as needed basis.
The Facts of the Case
Steve Filarsky, a private attorney, was retained by the city of Rialto, California to conduct an investigation after firefighter Nicholas Delia was seen buying fiberglass insulation at a home improvement store while on medical leave. During an interview, Delia acknowledged buying the supplies, but denied having done any work on his home. To verify Delia’s claim, Filarsky asked Delia to allow a fire department official to enter his home and view the unused materials. When Delia refused, Filarsky ordered him to bring the materials out of his home for the official to see.
While Delia ultimately produced the materials, he later brought an action under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 against the city, the fire department, and Filarsky, alleging that the order to produce the building materials violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that Filarsky was not entitled to seek qualified immunity under Section 183 because he was a private attorney, not a city employee.
Section 1983 creates a cause of action for any person who has been deprived of rights secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States by a person acting under color of state law. Qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits as individuals under Section 183; only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
The justices unanimously ruled that individuals were not barred from enjoying the benefit of immunity simply because they are not full-time employees. As the Court highlighted, “The government interest in avoiding ‘unwarranted timidity’ on the part of those engaged in the public’s business … is equally implicated regardless of whether the individual sued as a state actor works for the government full-time or on some other basis.”
The Court acknowledged that the government may look outside its permanent workforce to secure the services of private individuals with particular skills and expertise and that the most talented candidates might decline these positions if they did not receive the same immunity enjoyed by their public employee counterparts.
The Practical Implications for Municipalities
The public law decision will have broad ramifications to New Jersey towns that have increasingly turned to contract employees to carry out their work in the midst of shrinking state and municipal budgets. It will be interesting to see if the law in Filarsky will be expanded to include attorney malpractice as well as 1983 civil rights violations.