Law School Case Brief
McCloud v. Testa - 97 F.3d 1536 (6th Cir. 1996)
When the law is unclear, public officials performing discretionary functions are entitled to qualified immunity in their individual capacities. Thus, individual capacity defendants in 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 cases receive some benefit from legal doubt about the clarity of existing law. A corollary of this rule in the U.S. Const. amend. I patronage context is that the Branti exception in political patronage cases is to be construed broadly, so as presumptively to encompass positions placed by the legislature outside of the merit civil service. Consequently, individual defendants in § 1983 patronage cases receive some additional benefit from legal doubt, other than that provided by qualified immunity doctrine generally, about how particular employment positions are situated in relation to the Branti exception.
Defendant Joseph W. Testa, who was a Republican, was appointed as a county auditor, after the previous auditor, Palmer McNeal, resigned. Upon taking office, Testa discharged plaintiffs, including McCloud, employees loyal to McNeal, who opposed Testa politically and did not want him in the position of the county auditor. Plaintiffs filed suit, claiming that their discharge violated the U.S. Const. amend. I. Testa filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming qualified immunity. The trial court denied Testa’s motion, and Testa appealed the ruling.
Was Testa entitled to qualified immunity for discharging McCloud and other employees based upon their political opposition to him?
The Court held that it had jurisdiction to review a denial of qualified immunity in an interlocutory appeal, even though there was no final judgment under 28 U.S.C.S. § 1291. The Court determined that lower level employees who did not have a confidential position involving trust with defendant was entitled to U.S. Const. amend. I protection against discrimination based upon their political speech, and freedom of association. The Court stated that this was a known rule of law prior to plaintiffs' discharge, and therefore Testa was not entitled to qualified immunity. The Court remanded for a determination of whether plaintiffs occupied a position of trust.
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