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Supreme Court reverses 9th Circuit to shield private lawyers

April 17, 2012|By David G. Savage
  • Chief Justice John Roberts, shown in a 2010 photo, wrote that it made no sense to expose private lawyers working for the government to personal liability when public employees doing the same job are shielded.
Chief Justice John Roberts, shown in a 2010 photo, wrote that it made no sense… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has shielded private lawyers and possibly others working for cities, counties and school districts from being sued for violating the rights of citizens and employees.

A 9-0 decision announced Tuesday blocks a lawsuit against a Southern California attorney who was accused of ordering an illegal search of a firefighter’s house.

A judge had shielded the fire chief of the Inland Empire city of Rialto and two fire department inspectors from being sued for the allegedly illegal search under the rule that gives public employees a “qualified immunity” from suits when they are doing their jobs. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that this governmental immunity did not extend to Steve Filarsky, a private lawyer who advised the city on conducting internal investigations.

Disagreeing with the 9th Circuit, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said it made no sense to expose private lawyers working for the government to personal liability when public employees doing the same job are shielded. He said many small cities like Rialto cannot afford to have lawyers on their staffs and must rely at times on private attorneys.

“This case is a good example: Filarsky had 29 years of specialized experience as an attorney in labor, employment and personnel matters, with particular expertise in conducting internal affairs investigations,” the chief justice wrote. “The City of Rialto certainly had no permanent employee with anything approaching those qualifications.”

Shielding private lawyers from almost all personal liability is necessary for “ensuring that talented candidates are not deterred from public service,” Roberts said in Filarsky vs. Delia.

The case arose when Nicholas Delia, a firefighter in Rialto, became ill after responding to a toxic spill in 2006, and he missed several weeks of work. The city became suspicious of his extended absence and hired a private investigator to check on him. The investigator observed Delia buying rolls of fiberglass insulation from a home improvement store, and city officials suspected he might be doing construction work at home when he was supposedly recovering.

Filarsky questioned Delia about the building supplies. The firefighter admitted he bought the materials, but had done no work.

In order to put the suspicion to rest, Filarsky recommended the fire chief tell Delia he must show the materials to fire inspectors. Delia objected, and his attorney averred that such a forced search of his house would violate the 4th Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches.

Undeterred, the fire chief ordered Delia to put the rolls of insulation on his front lawn. Delia did as ordered. The fire inspectors thanked him and left. Delia and his attorney then followed through with their vow and sued the fire chief, the inspectors and Filarsky claiming his constitutional rights had been violated.

A federal judge threw out the claims and ruled all the city officials were immune because they did not violate a “clearly established constitutional right.” In Tuesday’s decision, the Supreme Court said Filarsky deserved to be immune as well.

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