The US Supreme Court has set precedent with another fire service case – this time focusing on the liability of an attorney hired to conduct an investigation into a firefighter’s misconduct. It is a case we have been following for some time out of Rialto, California.
Rialto firefighter Nicholas B. Delia was off-injured and department administrators were suspicious given the circumstances and his disciplinary history. He was placed under surveillance and filmed purchasing building supplies including rolls of fiberglass insulation.
As part of the investigation Delia was called to appear for an interview conducted by attorney Steve Filarsky. Filarsky was not a public employee but rather had been hired by the city as a contractor. That seemingly subtle point plays a pivotal role in the case.
As the interview unfolded, Delia acknowledged buying the supplies, denied working while off injured, and denied doing work to his house. He claimed the fiberglass was still at his home and still in the original packaging. After several brief adjournments where Filarsky met with fire department officials, Delia was asked if he would consent to allowing Battalion Chief Mike Peel to enter his house to conduct a warrantless search. Delia declined.
Delia was subsequently ordered to produce the rolls of insulation from his house. Delia’s attorney (who was present) objected to the order, insisting it violated the 4th Amendment. Following a contentious meeting in which the lawyer threatened to sue the fire department, the chiefs and Filarsky, Delia was given a written order to produce the insulation. The order was signed by Chief Wells.
Chief Peel and Battalion Chief Frank Bekker then followed Delia to his house where they waited outside as Delia produced the requested rolls. The investigation seemly ended when Delia produced the rolls.
Delia filed suit under 42 USC §1983 against the Rialto Fire Department, Fire Chief Stephen C. Wells, Battalion Chief Peel, Battalion Chief Bekker, and Filarsky alleging that the order to produce the rolls of insulation constituted an illegal warrantless search in a violation of his 4th Amendment rights.
The District Court concluded that Delia’s 4th Amendment rights were in fact violated, but granted summary judgment to the defendants concluding that all parties had qualified immunity. The 9th Circuit affirmed the District Court as to all defendants except for Filarsky ruling that his status as a contractor make him ineligible for qualified immunity. Filarsky appealed to the US Supreme Court.
The issue for the Supreme Court was relatively narrow: was Filarsky, as a contractor, eligible to receive qualified immunity to the same extent as the full-time government employees.
At the center of the legal dispute is a judicially created principle that a governmental agent who intentionally violates someone’s Constitutional Rights can only be held liable if the right that is violated is “clearly established”. According to the Supreme Court’s precedent, a government agent has qualified immunity when the rights that are violated are not “clearly established”.
The trial court ruled that while Delia’s rights had been violated, he had failed to establish that those rights were “clearly established as of the date of Chief Wells’s order, such that defendants would have known that their actions were unlawful.”
The Court looked at the history behind §1983, which granted people whose Constitutional rights were violated by governmental actors acting “under color of law” the right to sue to vindicate their Constitutional rights. The Court noted that in 1871 when §1983 was enacted, many if not most governmental workers were part time and in some cases unpaid officials. In fact, relatively few were what we would consider today as being full time employees.
The Court reasoned that today, “immunity under §1983 should not vary depending on whether an individual working for the government does so as a full-time employee, or on some other basis.”
The Court also compared the investigation conducted by the Rialto Fire Department to the investigative mechanism used by other fire departments such as FDNY:
“New York City has a Department of Investigation staffed by full-time public employees who investigate city personnel, and the resources to pay for it. The City of Rialto has neither, and so must rely on the occasional services of private individuals such as Mr. Filarsky. There is no reason Rialto’s internal affairs investigator should be denied the qualified immunity enjoyed by the ones who work for New York.”
Based on this reasoning, the Court ruled that Filarsky should have received qualified immunity, and Delia loses. The decision was unanimous, 9-0. It was issued Tuesday.
Here is a copy of the decision: 10-1018
And here are some stories about the case. Another.