State officials can be sued, held liable for on-job acts, Supreme Court rules

November 06, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- State government officials -- from the governor on down -- who violate someone's civil rights may be sued and ordered to pay the damages personally, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.

The ruling potentially exposes a wide array of state officers to claims for damages for using their official powers in ways that harm the rights of state employees or of myriad other people who have dealings with the state. The rights involved are those that exist under federal laws or the Constitution.

Hilda E. Ford, Maryland's secretary of personnel, said she would have to study the decision before determining its consequences here.

"I don't expect that it would have enormous impact, but I don't know," she said.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's opinion for the court in a Pennsylvania case rejected totally a claim that, since state governments and their agencies are immune to civil rights damages under federal law, officials should also be immune when their challenged actions occur in the line of duty.

Even if the action that violates someone's rights was something an official found necessary to perform the duties of office, that official is subject to a damages lawsuit that could be aimed at the official's personal assets if the person harmed asked for that, the ruling made clear.

"Imposing personal liability on state officers may hamper their performance of public duties" and might make government less effective, Justice O'Connor's opinion conceded. But, she added, that was no reason to immunize them from that liability.

If they were immune, they would be "absolutely" free of any personal liability for official acts that interfere with someone's rights.

The decision sent a clear signal to lawyers of those claiming their rights were violated to aim lawsuits at officials personally. In the past, the court has made clear that, if such a claim targets the office an official held, rather than the person holding it, it would be treated as a claim against the state itself and would be barred because of state immunity.

State officers faced with having to pay damages out of their own pockets would be able, some of the time at least, to get the state to cover the payments for them when that is allowed in a particular state. The states, however, would have no binding duty to do so.

The ruling yesterday extended to officers at the state level a kind of personal liability that has applied for years to public officials at the county and city levels. County and city governments themselves also can be sued directly for civil rights damages, under past Supreme Court decisions, even though states and their agencies may not be.

The decision will send back to lower courts for action two lawsuits in which 16 former state employees in Pennsylvania are seeking $4.5 million in damages from Barbara Hafer, the state's elected auditor general, who is a Republican.

During her election campaign, she had promised publicly to fire employees of the auditor general's office whose names had appeared on a confidential list drawn up by a federal prosecutor after a probe of alleged payoffs to get state jobs or promotions. She carried out her promise, in two stages during February 1989.

Eight workers sued Ms. Hafer later that year for damages, claiming that they had been cleared of wrongdoing and that they were fired solely because they were Democrats. Later, eight others sued, making the same claim of being fired for partisan reasons only.

A federal judge threw out all the claims, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Ms. Hafer, who took the case to the Supreme Court as Hafer vs. Melo (No. 90-681).

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