The recent unanimous U.S.
Supreme Court opinion, Filarsky v. Delia, held that private attorneys
representing the government may enjoy qualified immunity from suit. Stephen A.
Mesi, Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice,
discusses the Supreme Court's latest word on Section 1983 immunity.
What do Abraham Lincoln, John
Marshall, and Daniel Webster have in common? All represented the government at
some point in their private legal careers. The recent unanimous U.S. Supreme
Court opinion, Filarsky v. Delia [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers],
held that private attorneys representing the government may enjoy qualified
immunity from suit. Stephen A. Mesi, Deputy Attorney General in the California
Department of Justice, discusses the U.S. Supreme Court's latest
word on Section 1983 immunity.
Delia, a firefighter for the City of Rialto, California, missed three weeks of
work after he responded to a toxic spill and became ill. The City became
suspicious of Delia's extended leave and hired a private investigator to
conduct surveillance on him. After Delia was filmed buying fiberglass
insulation and building supplies from a home improvement store, the City began
a formal internal affairs investigation of him. It hired local employment
attorney Filarsky to assist in the investigation and conduct an administrative
interrogation of Delia. Delia acknowledged buying the supplies, but denied
having done any work on his home. To verify Delia's claim, Filarsky asked Delia
to let a fire department official enter his home and see the unused materials.
Delia refused. After consulting with the Rialto City Attorney, Filarsky drafted
an order, signed by the fire chief, requiring Delia to produce the unused
materials outside his home. Delia's attorney asserted that the order violated
Delia's Fourth Amendment rights and threatened a civil rights suit against the
City, Filarsky, and several other individuals. As soon as the interview
concluded, two fire officials followed Delia home, where he complied with the
order and brought the insulation rolls outside. The City closed its
Delia sued the City, its fire chief, other fire officials, and Filarsky under 42
U.S.C. 1983 [an annotated version of this statute is available to lexis.com
subscribers] in federal court, claiming he had been subjected to a
warrantless search. The district court granted summary judgment against all
individual defendants, finding that they were protected by qualified immunity for
their actions. The Ninth Circuit concluded that Delia's Fourth Amendment rights
had been violated, but that these rights were not clearly established at the
time of the violation. It affirmed the district court's decision in favor of
all individuals except Filarsky. Because Filarsky was a private attorney, not a
City employee, he was not entitled to the qualified immunity defense.
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A. Mesi is a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department
of Justice Employment & Administrative Mandate (EAM) section. He represents governmental entities and
managers in employment litigation. He co-wrote and recently updated
Chapter 14 of California Public Sector Employment Law (Matthew Bender).
He is a graduate of USC and Loyola Law School and currently serves as President
of the Italian-American Lawyers of Los Angeles.
[NOTE: This article does not necessarily represent the views of the Attorney
General of California or the California Department of Justice.]