In a unanimous decision issued on April 17, the U.S. Supreme Court may have extended the reach of the qualified immunity doctrine with its holding that an attorney working in a temporary position for a local government had the same protection against civil rights lawsuits as public employees.
In Filarsky v. Delia (2012), Steve Filarsky, a private attorney, was hired by the City of Rialto, California to investigate the possible misuse of sick leave by a firefighter. In the lawsuit that followed, the firefighter not only sued several full-time city employees, but also Filarsky. Lower courts threw out claims against all the city employees based on qualified immunity, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals would not dismiss the suit against Filarsky because he was not a regular employee of the City. The Supreme Court, however, did.
In writing the decision for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts could not find a sufficient reason for treating employees differently because one person is a full-time government employee and another has been retained for a discrete task. The Court held that a private individual temporarily retained by the government to carry out its work was entitled to seek qualified immunity from suit.