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Private actors are not automatically immune from suit and § 1983 immunity does not automatically follow § 1983 liability. Private prison guards, unlike those who work directly for the government, do not enjoy immunity from suit in a § 1983 case. Officers who seek exemption from personal liability have the burden of showing that such an exemption is justified.
Respondent McKnight, a prisoner at a Tennessee correctional center whose management had been privatized, brought a Federal District Court suit under 42 USCS 1983 against petitioners, privately employed prison guards, alleging that their physical restraint of him violated his civil rights. The district court denied petitioners' motion to dismiss because of qualified immunity, holding that because the guards worked for a private company rather than the government, the law did not grant the guards immunity from suit. On interlocutory appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed on similar grounds. Petitioners challenged the decision.
Were the petitioners, prison guards of a private correctional center, entitled to qualified immunity, thereby warranting the dismissal of respondent’s suit?
On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the rulings of the courts below, and found nothing special about petitioners' jobs to warrant providing them with governmental immunity. There was no historical basis for extending immunity to privately employed prison guards. Nor was immunity necessary where the competitive market tended to insure that private prison companies hired competent guards. And while the governmental immunity encouraged its employees to work without fear of lawsuits, petitioners' employer had insurance to alleviate the same concerns. The Court noted that the holding went to the narrow immunity question concerning a private firm, organized to assume a major administrative task, such as managing an institution with limited direct supervision by the government, and which undertook the task for profit and potentially in competition with other firms.