500 U.S. 226 (1991), 90-96, Siegert v. Gilley

Docket Nº:No. 90-96
Citation:500 U.S. 226, 111 S.Ct. 1789, 114 L.Ed.2d 277, 59 U.S.L.W. 4465
Party Name:Siegert v. Gilley
Case Date:May 23, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 226

500 U.S. 226 (1991)

111 S.Ct. 1789, 114 L.Ed.2d 277, 59 U.S.L.W. 4465

Siegert

v.

Gilley

No. 90-96

United States Supreme Court

May 23, 1991

Argued Feb. 19, 1991

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In seeking to become "credentialed" in his new job at an Army hospital, petitioner Siegert, a clinical psychologist, asked his former employer, a federal hospital, to provide job performance and other information to his new employer. Respondent Gilley, Siegert's supervisor at his former job, responded with a letter declaring that he could not recommend Siegert because he was inept, unethical, and untrustworthy. After he was denied credentials and his federal service employment was terminated, Siegert filed a damages action against Gilley in the District Court, alleging, inter alia, that, under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, Gilley had caused an infringement of his "liberty interests" in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment "by maliciously and in bad faith publishing a defamatory per se statement . . . which [he] knew to be untrue." Gilley filed a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment, asserting, among other things, the defense of qualified immunity under Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, and contending that Siegert's factual allegations did not state the violation of any constitutional right "clearly established" at the time of the complained-of actions, see id. at 818. The court ultimately found Siegert's allegations to be sufficient, but the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with instructions that the case be dismissed. Although assuming that bad-faith motivation would suffice to make Gilley's actions in writing the letter a violation of Siegert's clearly established constitutional rights, the court held that Siegert's particular allegations were insufficient under its "heightened pleading standard" to overcome Gilley's qualified immunity claim.

Held: The Court of Appeals properly concluded that the District Court should have dismissed Siegert's suit because he had not overcome Gilley's qualified immunity defense. Siegert failed to allege the violation of a clearly established constitutional right -- indeed, of any constitutional right at all -- since, under Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 708-709, injury to reputation, by itself, is not a protected "liberty" interest. He therefore failed to satisfy the necessary threshold inquiry in the determination of a qualified immunity claim. See, e.g., Harlow, supra, at 818. Thus, although the Court of Appeals reached the correct result, it should not have assumed without deciding the necessary preliminary

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issue and then proceeded to examine the sufficiency of Siegert's allegations. Siegert's claim failed at an analytically earlier stage of the inquiry. Pp. 231-235.

282 U.S.App.D.C. 392, 895 F.2d 797 (CADC 1990) affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion [111 S.Ct. 1791] concurring in the judgment. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, and in Parts II and III of which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 236.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to determine whether the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit properly directed dismissal of petitioner's Bivens claim on the grounds that he had not overcome respondent's claim of qualified immunity. The Court of Appeals relied on its "heightened pleading standard," but we hold that petitioner's claim failed at an analytically earlier stage of the inquiry into qualified immunity: his allegations, even if accepted as true, did not state a claim for violation of any rights secured to him under the United States Constitution.

Petitioner Frederick A. Siegert, a clinical psychologist, was employed at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a Federal Government facility in Washington, D.C. from November, 1979, to October, 1985. He was a behavior therapy coordinator specializing in work with mentally retarded children and, to a lesser extent, with adults. In January, 1985, respondent H.

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Melvin Gilley became head of the division for which Siegert worked.

In August, 1985, St. Elizabeth's notified Siegert that it was preparing to terminate his employment. Siegert was informed that his

proposed removal was based upon his inability to report for duty in a dependable and reliable manner, his failure to comply with supervisory directives, and cumulative charges of absence without approved leave.

App. 15, 21. After meeting with hospital officials, Siegert agreed to resign from the hospital, and thereby avoid a termination that might damage his reputation. Id. at 21.

Following his resignation from St. Elizabeth's, Siegert began working as a clinical psychologist at a United States Army Hospital in Bremerhaven, West Germany. Because of the requirement that he be "credentialed" to work in hospitals operated by the Army, Siegert signed a "Credential Information Request Form" asking that St. Elizabeth's Hospital provide to his prospective supervisor, Colonel William Smith, "all information on job performance and the privileges" he had enjoyed while a member of its staff. Siegert's request was referred to Gilley because he had been Siegert's supervisor at St. Elizabeth's.

In response to Siegert's request, Gilley notified the Army by letter that "he could not recommend [Siegert] for privileges as a psychologist." Id. at 6. In that letter, Gilley wrote that he

consider[ed] Dr. Siegert to be both inept and unethical, perhaps the least trustworthy individual I have supervised in my thirteen years at [St. Elizabeth's].

Ibid. After receiving this letter, the Army Credentials Committee told Siegert that, since "reports about him were `extremely unfavorable' . . . , the committee was . . . recommending that [Siegert] not be credentialed."

Id. at 7.

After being denied credentials by the Committee, Siegert was turned down for a position he sought with an Army hospital in Stuttgart. Siegert then returned to Bremerhaven where he was given provisional credentials, limited to his

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work with adults. Siegert filed administrative appeals with the Office of the Surgeon General to obtain full credentials. In December, 1987, the Surgeon General denied Siegert's claims. Soon thereafter, his "federal service employment [was] terminated." Id. at 23.

Upon learning of Gilley's letter in November, 1986, Siegert filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that Gilley's letter had [111 S.Ct. 1792] caused him to lose his post as a psychologist at the Bremerhaven Army Hospital, and had rendered him unable to obtain other appropriate employment in the field. Relying on Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), Siegert sought $4 million in damages against Gilley, contending that --

by maliciously and in bad faith publishing a defamatory per se statement . . . which [he] knew to be untrue, or with reckless disregard as to whether it was true or not,

-- Gilley had caused an infringement of his "liberty interests" in violation of the protections afforded by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. App. 9. Siegert also asserted pendent state law claims of defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with contractual relations.

Gilley filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. He contended that Siegert's factual allegations, even if true, did not make out a violation of any constitutional right. Gilley also asserted the defense of qualified immunity under Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), contending that Siegert's allegations did not state the violation of any "clearly established" constitutional right. App. to Pet. for Cert. 30a-31a, 36a. Siegert submitted opposing affidavits stating facts supporting his allegations of malice.

In December, 1987, the District Court issued an order "[declining] to decide this matter on a Summary Judgment motion at this time." Id. at 54a. Instead, the court determined that "[it] would like to see a more developed record,"

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and therefore ordered "a limited amount of discovery." Ibid. In particular, the court directed the taking of the depositions of the parties and Colonel Smith.

Gilley filed a motion for reconsideration, asking the court to stay further discovery pending disposition of his qualified immunity claim. In June, 1988, the District Court denied the motion, and, in a written opinion, found that Siegert's factual allegations were sufficient to state violations of a clearly established constitutional right. It analyzed our decision in Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693 (1976), but found this case closer on its facts to two decisions of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Doe v. United States Department of Justice, 243 U.S.App.D.C. 354, 753 F.2d 1092 (1985), and Bartel v. FAA, 233 U.S.App.D.C. 297, 725 F.2d 1403 (1985). The court directed the parties to proceed with the previously ordered limited discovery. Gilley appealed the denial of his qualified immunity defense to the Court of Appeals pursuant to Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 (1985).

A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed and remanded with instructions that the case be dismissed. The court first determined that, to the extent Siegert's Bivens action was premised on allegations of improper conduct irrespective of subjective intent, the allegations did not state a claim for violation of any clearly established constitutional right. In the course of that analysis, it concluded that the District Court...

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