468 U.S. 183 (1984), 83-490, Davis v. Scherer

Docket Nº:No. 83-490
Citation:468 U.S. 183, 104 S.Ct. 3012, 82 L.Ed.2d 139
Party Name:Davis v. Scherer
Case Date:June 28, 1984
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 183

468 U.S. 183 (1984)

104 S.Ct. 3012, 82 L.Ed.2d 139

Davis

v.

Scherer

No. 83-490

United States Supreme Court

June 28, 1984

Argued April 16, 1984

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

To avoid conflicts of interest, an order of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (Department) required that proposed outside employment of members of the Florida Highway Patrol be approved by the Department. Appellee, a Highway Patrol employee, originally received permission in 1977 to accept part-time employment with a County Sheriff's Office, but the permission was later revoked. When appellee refused to quit his part-time job, the Director of the Highway Patrol, in 1977, ordered that appellee's employment with the Patrol be terminated. While appellee's administrative appeal was pending, he and the Department settled the dispute, and he was reinstated. But friction between appellee and his superiors continued, and he resigned in 1979 after he was suspended from the Patrol. Appellee then filed the present suit against appellants, certain present and former officials of the Department and the Highway Patrol, seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He requested a declaration that appellants in 1977 had violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by discharging him without a formal pretermination or a prompt post-termination hearing, and he sought an award of money damages. Granting the requested relief, the court ultimately held that appellants had forfeited their qualified immunity from suit under § 1983 because, even though appellee's due process rights were not "clearly established" at the time of his discharge in 1977, appellants had not followed administrative regulations in discharging appellee. The court concluded that therefore appellants' belief in the legality of their conduct was unreasonable, and they were [104 S.Ct. 3014] not entitled to qualified immunity. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: A plaintiff who seeks damages for violation of constitutional or statutory rights may overcome the defendant official's qualified immunity only by showing that those rights were clearly established at the time of the conduct at issue. Appellee made no such showing. Whether an official may prevail in his qualified immunity defense depends upon the objective reasonableness of his conduct as measured by reference to clearly established law. No other circumstances are relevant to the issue of qualified immunity. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800. Pp.190-197.

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(a) As the District Court recognized, there was authoritative precedent in the Circuit that the constitutional right of a state employee to a pretermination or a prompt post-termination hearing was not well established at the time of the conduct in question. Nor was it unreasonable, under Fourteenth Amendment due process principles, for the Department to conclude that appellee had been provided with the fundamentals of due process. Thus, the District Court correctly held that appellee demonstrated no violation of his clearly established constitutional rights. Pp. 191-193.

(b) Appellants did not forfeit their qualified immunity from suit for violation of federal constitutional rights merely because they failed to comply with a clear state regulation. Appellee contended that an official's violation of a clear state statute or regulation, although not itself actionable under § 1983, should deprive the official of qualified immunity from damages for violation of other statutory or constitutional provisions. If such view were adopted, it would disrupt the proper balance between the interests in vindication of citizens' constitutional rights and in public officials' effective performance of their duties. Nor would it always be fair, or sound policy, to demand official compliance with a statute or regulation on pain of money damages. Officials are subject to a plethora of rules, often so voluminous, ambiguous, and contradictory, and in such flux that officials can comply with them only selectively. In these circumstances, officials should not err always on the side of caution. Pp.193-196.

710 F.2d 838, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 197.

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POWELL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellants in this case challenge the holding of the Court of Appeals that a state official loses his qualified immunity from suit for deprivation of federal constitutional rights if he is found to have violated the clear command of a state administrative regulation.

I

The present controversy arose when appellee Gregory Scherer, who was employed by the Florida Highway Patrol as a radio-teletype operator, applied for permission from the Patrol to work as well for the Escambia County Sheriff's Office as a reserve deputy. To avoid conflicts of interest, an order of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles required that proposed outside employment of Patrol members be approved by the Department. A letter from appellee's troop commander, Capt. K. S. Sconiers, dated September 1, 1977, granted appellee permission to accept the part-time work. The letter noted that permission would be rescinded "should [the] employment interfere . . . with your duties with [the] department." 543 F.Supp. 4, 8 (ND Fla.1981). Later that month, Capt. Sconiers informed appellee by memorandum that permission to accept the employment was revoked. As Capt. Sconiers explained at trial, his superiors in the Highway Patrol had determined that appellee's reserve deputy duties could conflict with his duties at the Highway Patrol.

Appellee continued to work at the second job, despite the revocation of permission. Oral discussions and an exchange of [104 S.Ct. 3015] letters among appellee and his superiors ensued. Sgt.

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Clark, appellee's immediate superior, advised appellee that he was violating instructions; appellee explained that he had invested too much money in uniforms to give up his part-time work. Lt. Wiggins, the next highest officer in the chain of command, then orally and by memorandum ordered appellee to quit his part-time job. Appellee explained to Lt. Wiggins that he saw no conflict between the two jobs, and would not quit his second job.

Sgt. Clark and Lt. Wiggins had submitted memoranda to Capt. Sconiers that described appellee's continued employment and their conversations with appellee. Appellee also wrote to Capt. Sconiers explaining that he saw no reason to resign his outside employment. So advised, Capt. Sconiers recommended to Col. J. E. Beach, director of the Florida Highway Patrol, that appellee be suspended for three days for violation of the dual-employment policy. Capt. Sconiers submitted a number of documents, including his own letters approving appellee's request and rescinding the approval; appellee's letter of request and subsequent letter explaining his refusal to quit his job; and the memoranda of Sgt. Clark and Lt. Wiggins.1 On the basis of these documents, Col. Beach, on October 24, 1977, ordered that appellee's employment with the Florida Highway Patrol be terminated.

On November 10, 1977, appellee filed an appeal with the Florida Career Service Commission. Before the Commission had heard appellee's administrative appeal from his dismissal, appellee and the Department settled the dispute. The settlement reinstated appellee with backpay. But friction between appellee and his superiors continued, and in January, 1979, after appellee was suspended from the Patrol, he resigned "to avoid further harassment and to remove a cloud over his employability." Id. at 11.

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Appellee then filed the present suit against appellants in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.2 Appellee's complaint alleged that appellants, in 1977, had violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by discharging appellee from his job without a formal pretermination or a prompt post-termination hearing.3 Appellee requested a declaration that his rights had been violated, and an award of money damages.

The District Court granted the requested relief for violation of appellee's Fourteenth Amendment rights.4 The court found that appellee had a property interest in his job and that the procedures followed by appellants to discharge appellee were constitutionally "inadequate" under the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at 14. Further, the court declared unconstitutional Florida's statutory provisions governing removal of state employees, Fla.Stat. § 110.061 (1977). Finally, the District Court concluded that appellants had forfeited their qualified immunity from suit under § 1983 because appellee's "due process rights were clearly established at the time of his October 24, 1977, dismissal." Id. at 16.

Five days after entry of the District Court's order, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided Weisbrod v. Donigan, 651 F.2d 334 (1981). The Court of Appeals there held that Florida officials in 1978 had [104 S.Ct. 3016] violated no well

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established due process rights in discharging a permanent state employee without a pretermination or a prompt post-termination hearing. On motion for reconsideration, the District Court found that Weisbrod required it to vacate its prior holding that appellants had forfeited their immunity by violating appellee's clearly established constitutional rights. The court nevertheless reaffirmed its award...

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