Legal Memorandum: Qualified Immunity for Public Officials

Issue: May a City Marshal in Louisiana be held personally liable for damages for wrongfully imprisoning a person for failure to pay a fine?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure, Municipal, County and Local Law
Keywords: Qualified immunity; Public officials; Course of duty
Jurisdiction: Federal, Louisiana
Cited Cases: 655 F.2d 843; 483 U.S. 635; 533 U.S. 194; 461 U.S. 660; 473 U.S. 159; 457 U.S. 800; 468 U.S. 183; 588 F.2d 1256; 501 So. 2d 916; 736 So. 2d 967; 461 U.S. 30; 489 So. 2d 286; 399 U.S. 235; 27 So. 3d 1011
Cited Statutes: La. Const. Art. I, §§ 2 and 3; 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Date: 05/01/2011

A section 1983 claim against a governmental actor in his or her individual capacity can make the defendant personally liable for a judgment, including a judgment for punitive damages.  Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985); Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30 (1983).  Liability for compensatory damages—for actual damages, not merely the fact that a constitutional right has been violated—is based on a showing that the defendant caused the alleged constitutional injury.  Graham, 473 U.S. at 166.  An award of punitive damages requires a finding that the defendant’s conduct was reckless or callously indifferent to the federally protected rights of others, or that the defendant was motivated by an evil intent.  Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. at 34.

Public officials are generally granted qualified immunity from lawsuits based on reasonable discretionary acts taken in carrying out official duties.  Qualified immunity balances “the public interest in deterrence of unlawful conduct and its compensation of victims,” with the public interest in having officials act “with independence and without fear of consequences.”  Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 819 (1982).   Qualified immunity depends on “the ‘objective legal reasonableness’ of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were ‘clearly established’ at the time it was taken.”  Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638 (1987). 

The analysis for a claim of qualified immunity first considers whether, “taken in the light most favorable to the party […]

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