Civil-Rights Case Clarifies When State Officials May Be Sued

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WASHINGTON--State officials may be sued and held personally liable for actions taken under state authority that violate the constitutional rights of an individual, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court declared last week.

The 8-to-0 ruling in a Pennsylvania case was meant to clear up confusion in the lower courts over when a government official may be sued for acting "under color of state law."

A 1989 High Court decision said that state officials acting in their "official capacities" cannot be sued under Section 1983 of the United States Code, which allows for suits in federal court for civil-rights violations. The ruling said that lawsuits against state officials in their official capacities are essentially lawsuits against the state itself. States are immune from damage suits under the 11th Amendment to the Constitution.

But the Nov. 5 opinion in Hafer v. Melo (Case No. 90-681) clarifies that state officials may be sued in their personal capacities for state actions they take that violate civil rights.

"State executive officials are not entitled to absolute immunity for their official actions," said the opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

The case was being watched by the National School Boards Association, among other groups, because of its impact on the complex area of Section 1983 law, which can apply to local public-school officials as well as to state officials.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who was not sitting during oral argument for the case, did not participate in the ruling.

The case arose in 1988, when the newly elected auditor general of Pennsylvania, Barbara Hafer, fired 18 employees who had allegedly "bought" their jobs in state government through payments to a former employee of the office.

Eight of the dismissed employees filed suit in federal court, charging that their civil rights had been violated because the auditor general fired them based on unsubstantiated charges. The suit was dismissed by the district court but reinstated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Ms. Hafer appealed to the Supreme Court, saying that the suit was barred because she was acting in her official capacity when she dismissed the employees.

The court rejected her arguments, saying that they "would absolutely immunize state officials from personal liability for acts within their authority and necessary to fulfilling governmental responsibility."

The ruling returns the suit to the district court, where the plaintiffs still will have a difficult time overcoming the variety of defenses available to state officials.

Government Negligence Alleged

In a related matter last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could make it easier for public-school districts and other governmental agencies to be sued if they failed to protect the safety of employees or students.

In Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Tex. (No. 90-1279), the Justices will consider whether a local-government agency can be held liable under Section 1983 for negligence as an employer that would normally subject it to a state tort lawsuit.

In the Collins case, the widow of a city employee killed while working in the sewers alleges that the municipality's "deliberate indifference" to safety was a violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process of law.

The widow's lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district court for "failure to state a claim." That ruling was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The National Education Association has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, saying that actions of government as an employer should be subject to constitutional scrutiny.

Lawyers for government agencies, including school districts, have expressed fears that a ruling for the widow would open up a rush of negligence lawsuits based on federal civil-rights claims.

"It's not just sewers," Lucas A. Powe Jr., the lawyer for the city of Harker Heights, told the Justices. "It's schools. It's hospitals. It's everywhere that government operates. I don't see anything in the petitioners' arguments that would close the floodgates" of lawsuits.

Child-Abuse Testimony

Meanwhile last week, the High Court also heard arguments in a criminal-law case being watched closely by child-welfare advocates.

In White v. Illinois (No. 90-6113), the Justices must determine whether to uphold the conviction of a man on child-molestation charges when his accuser, a 5-year-old girl, did not testify against him in court.

Randall D. White was convicted based on the hearsay testimony of five witnesses who talked to the girl within 45 minutes of the alleged molestation.

Lawyers for Mr. White contend that the Confrontation Clause of the Constitution requires that the defendant be allowed to hear directly from the accuser.

The High Court ruled last year that the states could use televised testimony of child-abuse victims to avoid face-to-face confrontations between them and defendants.

Vol. 11, Issue 11, Page 21

Published in Print: November 13, 1991, as Civil-Rights Case Clarifies When State Officials May Be Sued
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