On April 17, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Filarsky v. Delia, No. 10-1018. The Court held that a private attorney hired by the City of Rialto, California to interview a firefighter in connection with an internal affairs investigation was entitled to assert a qualified immunity defense to a claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Nicholas Delia, a firefighter for the City of Rialto, California, became ill after responding to a toxic spill and missed three weeks of work. The City became suspicious of Delia's extended leave and hired a private investigator to conduct surveillance. After Delia was observed purchasing building supplies, the City initiated a formal internal affairs investigation. The City hired private attorney Steve Filarsky to conduct an administrative investigation interview of Delia. Delia admitted purchasing the building supplies but denied having used them during his sick leave. At the conclusion of the interview, Filarsky prepared an order, signed by the Fire Chief, for Delia to produce the unused building materials. Delia's counsel objected, asserting that the order violated Delia's constitutional rights, but Delia ultimately complied.
Delia filed a section 1983 lawsuit against the City, its Fire Department, and various individuals involved in the internal affairs investigation, including Filarsky. Delia alleged that the order to produce the building materials violated his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court granted summary judgment to all of the individual defendants, concluding that they were protected by qualified immunity. The Ninth Circuit affirmed with respect to all defendants except Filarsky, concluding that he was not entitled to the immunity defense because he was not a City employee.
The Supreme Court reversed the denial of qualified immunity to Filarsky. The Court first noted that "there is no dispute that qualified immunity is available for the sort of investigative activities at issue," and then addressed whether such immunity should make a distinction between government employees and private individuals hired by the government to do government work. The Court looked both to general principles of tort immunities and defenses and to the underlying reasons for affording protection from suit under section 1983. The Court noted that, at the time section 1983 was enacted in 1871, a public servant was often one who "does not devote his entire time to his public duties," and that private citizens were actively involved in government work. The Court recited examples of individuals receiving immunity for actions taken while engaged in public service on a temporary or occasional basis throughout the years, and across governmental functions. It noted that qualified immunity "protects government's ability to perform its traditional functions" by "helping to avoid ‘unwarranted timidity' in performance of public duties, ensuring that talented candidates are not deterred from public service, and preventing the harmful distractions from carrying out the work of government that can often accompany damages suits." A "straightforward application" of the rule provided Filarsky with a qualified immunity defense in this case.
Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor filed concurring opinions.