Westfall v. Erwin

Decision Date13 January 1988
Docket NumberNo. 86-714,86-714
Citation108 S.Ct. 580,98 L.Ed.2d 619,484 U.S. 292
PartiesRodney P. WESTFALL, et al., Petitioners v. William T. ERWIN, Sr., and Emely Erwin
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondents, husband and wife, brought a state-law tort suit in state court alleging that, while working as a federal civilian employee at an Army Depot, the husband received chemical burns when he was exposed to toxic soda ash that was improperly stored at the depot as a result of the negligence of petitioner supervisors. The Federal District Court to which petitioners removed the action held that petitioners were absolutely immune from suit since the alleged tort was committed while they were acting within the scope of their employment, and granted summary judgment in their favor. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a federal employee enjoys immunity only if the challenged conduct, in addition to being within the scope of the employee's duties, is also a discretionary act.

Held: Conduct by federal officials must be discretionary in nature, as well as being within the scope of their employment, before the conduct is absolutely immune from state-law tort liability. See Doe v. McMillan, 412 U.S. 306, 93 S.Ct. 2018, 36 L.Ed.2d 912. Granting absolute immunity for nondiscretionary functions would not further the official immunity doctrine's central purpose of promoting effective government by insulating the decisionmaking process from the harassment of prospective litigation which could make federal officials unduly timid in carrying out their duties. The threat of tort liability cannot detrimentally inhibit conduct that is not the product of independent judgment, and it is only when officials exercise decisionmaking discretion that potential liability may shackle the fearless, vigorous, and effective administration of governmental policies. Petitioners' alternative argument that the discretionary function requirement is satisfied if the precise conduct of the federal official is not prescribed by law and the official exercises "minimal discretion" is rejected. This approach loses sight of the underlying purpose of the official immunity doctrine by ignoring the balance of potential benefits and costs under the circumstances, and, if adopted, would render the discretionary function requirement essentially meaningless. Virtually all official acts involve some modicum of choice and yet such acts will often be largely unaffected by the prospect of tort liability, thereby making the provision of absolute immunity unnecessary and unwise. Here, since no evidence was presented controverting respondents' assertion that petitioners were not in- volved in discretionary conduct, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether that conduct is entitled to absolute immunity, and the Court of Appeals was correct in reversing the grant of summary judgment. Pp. 295-300.

785 F.2d 1551 (CA11 1986), affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Donald B. Ayer, Sacramento, Cal., for petitioners.

M. Clay Alspaugh, Birmingham, Ala., for respondents.

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent William Erwin and his wife respondent Emely Erwin brought a state-law tort suit against petitioners, federal employees in the Executive Branch, alleging that he had suffered injuries as a result of petitioners' negligence in performing official acts. The issue presented is whether these federal officials are absolutely immune from liability under state tort law for conduct within the scope of their employment without regard to whether the challenged conduct was discretionary in nature.

I

Respondents William and Emely Erwin commenced this tort action in state court. At the time of the alleged tort, William Erwin was employed by the Federal Government as a civilian warehouseman at the Anniston Army Depot in Anniston, Alabama. Petitioners were supervisors at the Depot.1 Respondents' complaint alleged that while working at the Depot William Erwin came into contact with bags of toxic soda ash that "were improperly and negligently stored." 1 Record, Complaint ¶ 3. The complaint stated that William Erwin suffered chemical burns to his eyes and throat when he inhaled soda ash dust that had spilled from its bag. William Erwin also asserted that the soda ash "should not have been routed to the warehouse where [he] was working," and that "someone should have known that it was there and provided [him] with some warning as to its presence and danger before [he] inhaled it." 1 Record, Doc. No. 4, p. 1. The complaint charged petitioners with negligence "in proximately causing, permitting, or allowing [him] to inhale the . . . soda ash." 1 Record, Complaint ¶ 6.

Petitioners removed the action to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1). The District Court held that petitioners were absolutely immune from suit and granted summary judgment in their favor. After finding that the alleged tort was committed while petitioners were acting within the scope of their employment, the court held that "any federal employee is entitled to absolute immunity for ordinary torts committed within the scope of their jobs." Civ. Action No. CV85-H-874-S, p. 2 (June 5, 1985). The Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that a federal employee enjoys immunity " 'only if the challenged conduct is a discretionary act and is within the outer perimeter of the actor's line of duty.' " 785 F.2d 1551, 1552 (CA11 1986) (quoting Johns v. Pettibone Corp., 769 F.2d 724, 728 (CA11 1985)). The court held that the District Court erred in failing to consider whether the challenged conduct was discretionary, in addition to being within the scope of petitioners' duties, before finding that petitioners were absolutely immune from suit. Summary judgment was inappropriate, the court concluded, because respondents had "alleged undisputed facts sufficient to create a material question of whether or not [petitioners'] complained-of acts were discretionary." 785 F.2d, at 1553.

We granted certiorari, 480 U.S. 905, 107 S.Ct. 1346, 94 L.Ed.2d 517 (1987), to resolve the dispute among the Courts of Appeals as to whether conduct by federal officials must be discretionary in nature, as well as being within the scope of their employment, before the conduct is absolutely immune from state-law tort liability.2 We affirm.

II

In Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564, 79 S.Ct. 1335, 3 L.Ed.2d 1434 (1959), and Howard v. Lyons, 360 U.S. 593, 79 S.Ct. 1331, 3 L.Ed.2d 1454 (1959), this Court held that the scope of absolute official immunity afforded federal employees is a matter of federal law, "to be formulated by the courts in the absence of legislative action by Congress." Id., at 597, 79 S.Ct., at 1334. The purpose of such official immunity is not to protect an erring official, but to insulate the decisionmaking process from the harassment of prospective litigation. The provision of immunity rests on the view that the threat of liability will make federal officials unduly timid in carrying out their official duties, and that effective government will be promoted if officials are freed of the costs of vexatious and often frivolous damages suits. See Barr v. Matteo, supra, 360 U.S., at 571, 79 S.Ct., at 1339; Doe v. McMillan, 412 U.S. 306, 319, 93 S.Ct. 2018, 2028, 36 L.Ed.2d 912 (1973). This Court always has recognized, however, that official immunity comes at a great cost. An injured party with an otherwise meritorious tort claim is denied compensation simply because he had the misfortune to be injured by a federal official. Moreover, absolute immunity contravenes the basic tenet that individuals be held accountable for their wrongful conduct. We therefore have held that absolute immunity for federal officials is justified only when "the contributions of immunity to effective government in particular contexts outweigh the perhaps recurring harm to individual citizens." Doe v. McMillan, supra, at 320, 93 S.Ct., at 2028.3

Petitioners initially ask that we endorse the approach followed by the Fourth and Eighth Circuits, see General Electric Co. v. United States, 813 F.2d 1273, 1276-1277 (CA4 1987); Poolman v. Nelson, 802 F.2d 304, 307 (CA8 1986), and by the District Court in the present action, that all federal employees are absolutely immune from suits for damages under state tort law "whenever their conduct falls within the scope of their official duties." Brief for Petitioners 12. Petitioners argue that such a rule would have the benefit of eliminating uncertainty as to the scope of absolute immunity for state-law tort actions, and would most effectively ensure that federal officials act free of inhibition. Neither the purposes of the doctrine of official immunity nor our cases support such a broad view of the scope of absolute immunity, however, and we refuse to adopt this position.

The central purpose of official immunity, promoting effective government, would not be furthered by shielding an official from state-law tort liability without regard to whether the alleged tortious conduct is discretionary in nature. When an official's conduct is not the product of independent judgment, the threat of liability cannot detrimentally inhibit that conduct. It is only when officials exercise decisionmaking discretion that potential liability may shackle "the fearless, vigorous, and effective administration of policies of government." Barr v. Matteo, supra, 360 U.S., at 571, 79 S.Ct., at 1339. Because it would not further effective governance, absolute immunity for nondiscretionary functions finds no support in the traditional justification for official immunity.

Moreover, in Doe v. McMillan, supra, we explicitly rejected the suggestion that official immunity attaches solely because conduct is within the outer perimeter of an official's duties. Doe involved a damages action for both constitutional violations and...

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