504 U.S. 158 (1992), 91-126, Wyatt v. Cole

Docket Nº:No. 91-126
Citation:504 U.S. 158, 112 S.Ct. 1827, 118 L.Ed.2d 504, 60 U.S.L.W. 4383
Party Name:Wyatt v. Cole
Case Date:May 18, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 158

504 U.S. 158 (1992)

112 S.Ct. 1827, 118 L.Ed.2d 504, 60 U.S.L.W. 4383

Wyatt

v.

Cole

No. 91-126

United States Supreme Court

May 18, 1992

Argued Jan. 14, 1992

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

With the assistance of respondent Robbins, an attorney, respondent Cole filed a complaint under the Mississippi replevin statute against his partner, petitioner Wyatt. After Cole refused to comply with a state court order to return to Wyatt property seized under the statute, Wyatt brought suit in the Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging the state statute's constitutionality and seeking injunctive relief and damages. Among other things, the court. held the statute unconstitutional and assumed that Cole was subject to liability under Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922, in which this Court ruled that private defendants invoking state replevin, garnishment, and attachment statutes later declared unconstitutional act under color of state law for § 1983 liability purposes. The court also intimated that, but did not decide whether, Robbins was subject to § 1983 liability. However, Lugar had left open the question whether private defendants are entitled to qualified immunity from suit in such cases, see id. at 942, n. 23, and the District Court held that respondents were entitled to qualified immunity at least for conduct arising prior to the replevin statute's invalidation. The Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of qualified immunity to respondents without revisiting the question of their § 1983 liability.

Held:

1. Qualified immunity from suit, as enunciated by this Court with respect to government officials, is not available to private defendants charged with § 1983 liability for invoking state replevin, garnishment, or attachment statutes. Immunity for private defendants was not so firmly rooted in the common law, and was not supported by such strong policy reasons as to create an inference that Congress meant to incorporate it into § 1983. See, e.g., Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 637. Even if there were sufficient common law support to conclude that private defendants should be entitled to a good faith and/or probable cause defense to suits for unjustified harm arising out of the misuse of governmental processes, that would still not entitle respondents to what they obtained in the courts below: the type of objectively determined, immediately appealable, qualified immunity from suit accorded government officials under, e.g., Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S.

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800, and Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511. Moreover, the policy concerns mandating qualified immunity for officials in such cases -- the need to preserve the officials' ability to perform their discretionary functions and to ensure that talented candidates not be deterred by the threat of damage suits from entering public service -- are not applicable to private parties. Although it may be that private defendants faced with § 1983 liability under Lugar, supra, could be entitled to an affirmative good faith defense, or that § 1983 suits against private, rather than governmental, parties could require plaintiffs to carry additional burdens, those issues are neither before the Court nor decided here. Pp. 163-169.

2. On remand, it must be determined, at least, whether respondents, in invoking the replevin statute, acted under color of state law within the meaning of Lugar, supra. P. 169.

928 F.2d 718 (CA5 1991), reversed and remanded.

[112 S.Ct. 1829] O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 169. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER and THOMAS, JJ., joined, post, p. 175.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922 (1982), we left open the question whether private defendants charged with 42 U.S.C. § 1983 liability for invoking state replevin, garnishment, and attachment statutes later declared unconstitutional are entitled to qualified immunity from suit. Id. at 942, n. 23. We now hold that they are not.

I

This dispute arises out of a soured cattle partnership. In July, 1986, respondent Bill Cole sought to dissolve his partnership with petitioner Howard Wyatt. When no agreement could be reached, Cole, with the assistance of an

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attorney, respondent John Robbins II, filed a state court complaint in replevin against Wyatt, accompanied by a replevin bond of $18,000.

At that time, Mississippi law provided that an individual could obtain a court order for seizure of property possessed by another by posting a bond and swearing to a state court that the applicant was entitled to that property, and that the adversary "wrongfully took and detain[ed] or wrongfully detain[ed]" the property. 1975 Miss. Gen.Laws, ch. 508, § 1. The statute gave the judge no discretion to deny a writ of replevin.

After Cole presented a complaint and bond, the court ordered the County Sheriff to seize 24 head of cattle, a tractor, and certain other personal property from Wyatt. Several months later, after a postseizure hearing, the court dismissed Cole's complaint in replevin and ordered the property returned to Wyatt. When Cole refused to comply, Wyatt brought suit in Federal District Court, challenging the constitutionality of the statute and seeking injunctive relief and damages from respondents, the County Sheriff, and the deputies involved in the seizure.

The District Court held that the statute's failure to afford judges discretion to deny writs of replevin violated due process. 710 F.Supp. 180, 183 (SD Miss.1989).[1] It dismissed the suit against the government officials involved in the seizure on the ground that they were entitled to qualified immunity. App. 17-18. The court also held that Cole and Robbins, even if otherwise liable under § 1983, were entitled to qualified immunity from suit for conduct arising prior to the statute's invalidation. Id. at 14. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court's grant of qualified immunity to the private defendants. 928 F.2d 718 (1991).

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We granted certiorari, 502 U.S. 807 (1991), to resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals over whether private defendants threatened with 42 U.S.C. § 1983 liability are, like certain government officials, entitled to qualified immunity from suit. Like the Fifth Circuit, the Eighth and Eleventh Circuits have determined that private defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. See Buller v. Buechler, 706 F.2d 844, 850-852 (CA8 1983); Jones v. Preuit & Mauldin, 851 F.2d 1321, 1323-1325 (CA11 1988) (en banc), vacated on other grounds, 489 U.S. 1002 (1989). The First and Ninth Circuits, however, have held that, in certain circumstances, private parties acting under color of state law are not entitled to such an [112 S.Ct. 1830] immunity. See Downs v. Sawtelle, 574 F.2d 1, 15-16 (CA1), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 910 (1978); Conner v. Santa Ana, 897 F.2d 1487, 1492, n. 9 (CA9), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 816 (1990); Nowerton v. Gabica, 708 F.2d 380, 385, n. 10 (CA9 1983). The Sixth Circuit has rejected qualified immunity for private defendants sued under § 1983, but has established a good faith defense. Duncan v. Peck, 844 F.2d 1261 (CA6 1988).

II

Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a cause of action against

[e]very person who, under color of any statute . . . of any State . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws. . . .

The purpose of § 1983 is to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails. Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 254-257 (1978).

In Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922 (1982), the Court considered the scope of § 1983 liability in the context of garnishment, prejudgment attachment, and replevin statutes. In that case, the Court held that private parties who attached a debtor's assets pursuant to a state attachment statute were subject to § 1983 liability if the statute was constitutionally

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infirm. Noting that our garnishment, prejudgment attachment, and replevin cases established that private use of state laws to secure property could constitute "state action" for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment, id. at 932-935, the Court held that private defendants invoking a state-created attachment statute act "under color of state law" within the meaning of § 1983 if their actions are "fairly attributable to the State." Id. at 937. This requirement is satisfied, the Court held, if two conditions are met. First, the

deprivation must be caused by the exercise of some right or privilege created by the State or by a rule of conduct imposed by the State or by a person for whom the State is responsible.

Ibid. Second, the private party must have "acted together with or . . . obtained significant aid from state officials" or engaged in conduct "otherwise chargeable to the State." Ibid. The Court found potential § 1983 liability in Lugar because the attachment scheme was created by the State and because the private defendants, in invoking the aid of state officials to attach the disputed property, were "willful participant[s] in joint activity with the State or its agents." Id. at 941 (internal quotation marks omitted).

Citing Lugar, the District Court assumed that Cole, by invoking the state statute, had acted under color of state law within the meaning of § 1983, and was therefore liable for damages for the deprivation of Wyatt's due process rights. App. 12. With respect to Robbins, the court noted...

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