WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The 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 employees.
The Supreme Court case is Filarsky v. Delia, No 10-1018.
Editing by Doina Chiacu