Expanded Protections for Lawyers Working for the Government

/ 20.Apr, 2012
On Tuesday, April 17, 2012, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Filarsky v. Delia.  The Court unanimously held that a private attorney, hired by the government to perform a duty, was entitled to the same immunity as a government employee.  The case involved a California attorney, Steve Filarsky, hired by the City of Rialto, California to perform a worker’s comp investigation against a firefighter.  The firefighter, Nicholas Delia, missed three weeks of work because he became ill after exposure to a toxic spill.  After Delia was seen purchasing insulation at a home supply store, the City became suspicious of the extended absence and hired Filarsky to hold an investigative hearing against Delia.  Following the investigation, Delia brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City, the fire department, the fire chief, two other fire department officials and Filarsky.  Delia alleged violations of his rights under the 4th and 14th amendments.  The District Court granted summary judgment to all individual defendants on the basis of qualified immunity.  The 9th Circuit affirmed that ruling for all defendants except Filarsky.  The 9th Circuit held that a non-government employee is not entitled to the immunity.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on Filarsky’s appeal.
The Supreme Court reversed the ruling, holding that the private attorney was entitled to the same immunity as a government worker when performing government tasks.  In the Court’s opinion, Chief Justice Roberts stated that the common law drew no distinction between full time government employees and private individual’s performing the work of the government on a part-time or contract basis.  This lack of distinction in the common law beckons from the time when most government services were performed by private individuals who were engaged in public service part-time.  The Chief Justice said that affording immunity to private individuals acting on behalf of the government serves to ensure that talented individuals are not deterred from public service by the threat of damages via law suit.  A private citizen performing work for the government is entitled to the same qualified immunity as a full-time government employee.