Official Liability: Immunity Under

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The Committee, 1979 - Administrative agencies - 130 pages
The defense of immunity which protects public officials from personal liability in federal civil rights suits, and the government from monetary liability, is discussed. This report is based on an examination of case law through June 1979. It is limited in scope to the immunity defense to damages liability and does not treat the many other defenses asserted in section 1983 actions. It is organized in terms of broad categories of officials and the legal principles which have been developed by the federal courts with respect to immunity claims. The principle of immunity as it is now interpreted by the courts maintains that there should be no liability without fault to the public official who is required to make decisions and act upon them in an arena in which the rights of citizens are frequently affected. This analysis does not apply literally to the official shielded by absolute immunity since even wrongfully motivated actions will not incur liability in his case. However, since this complete immunity does not extend to conduct clearly outside the scope of the official's authority, his error in so acting is implicitly treated as culpable by the imposition of liability. The distinction is that liability is limited to a particular kind or degree of fault. Immunity would have no significance if it did not mean that the public official is more protected from liability than is a private citizen. The public official must intend harm or be deliberately indifferent to the rights of the person injured to be held liable. The difference, therefore, is one of degree, but the courts have had extensive experience in applying the distinction between gross and simple negligence in tort actions. It is less clear to what extent bad faith will be imputed to an official because of his disregard of established constitutional rights. It is probable that high-level officials whose policy setting roles affect large numbers of people will be held to a higher standard of knowledge of the law than others. Congressional attempts to amend Sections 1983 to impose liability directly on state governments have so far proved unsuccessful, although the Supreme Court's recent decision holding that a municipality can be sued for damages under Section 1983 places the question of local governments directly before the courts. Footnotes and a table of cases are included in the report.

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