WASHINGTON, April 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court
ruled on Tuesday that private attorneys or others temporarily
hired by local governments to conduct investigations can assert
immunity from civil rights lawsuits alleging constitutional
violations and seeking damages.
The high court ruled such individuals were not barred from
getting immunity solely because they do not work for the
government on a permanent or full-time basis.
The justices unanimously overturned a U.S. appeals court
decision and ruled a private attorney retained by city officials
to help with a personnel investigation can claim immunity in a
lawsuit alleging constitutional violations.
The ruling was a victory for lawyer Steve Filarsky, who had
been hired by the city of Rialto, California, to investigate
possible misuse of sick leave.
Nicholas Delia, a firefighter suspected of improperly taking
sick days, sued Filarsky after the investigation.
Delia was filmed by an investigator buying fiberglass
insulation at a home improvement store while on medical leave.
As part of the investigation, Filarsky interviewed Delia and
asked him about the insulation.
Delia was ordered by the fire chief to retrieve the
insulation from his home. Two department officers accompanied
Delia to his house to get the unopened rolls of insulation to
use in the city's case against him. City officials ultimately
closed the investigation and took no action against Delia.
Delia claimed in his lawsuit it was an unconstitutional
search that violated his rights and sued the city, the fire
department and Filarsky.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the appeals court
ruled that Delia could proceed against Filarsky only.
The Supreme Court in an opinion written by Chief Justice
John Roberts ruled for Filarsky.
Roberts wrote that affording immunity to those hired
temporarily allowed the government to attract individuals with
specialized knowledge or expertise, and that the public interest
was served by their ability to work free from the distraction of
potential lawsuits and liability.
He concluded that individuals temporarily retained by the
government should receive the same immunity enjoyed by their
public employee counterparts.
The Obama administration, 27 states, the American Bar
Association and groups representing cities, mayors and state
legislatures all supported Filarsky while a group representing
trial lawyers backed Delia.
Supporters of Filarsky said cities and counties have been
struggling to contain costs amid massive budget cuts and have
hired private attorneys for work normally done by government
The Supreme Court case is Filarsky v. Delia, No 10-1018.
For Filarsky: Patricia Millett of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer &
For Delia: Michael McGill of Lackie, Dammeier & McGill.
(Reporting by James Vicini)
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