Wyatt v. Cole

RESPONDENT:Cole et al.
LOCATION:Northern District Court of New York

DOCKET NO.: 91-126
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 504 US 158 (1992)
ARGUED: Jan 14, 1992
DECIDED: May 18, 1992

Joseph L. McNamara – on behalf of the Respondent
Jim Waide – on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Wyatt v. Cole

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 14, 1992 in Wyatt v. Cole

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 18, 1992 in Wyatt v. Cole

Sandra Day O’Connor:

The second case is Wyatt versus Cole, 91-126.

This case comes to us on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The dispute arose after the respondents, pursuant to a Mississippi statute, obtained a court order for the seizure of cattle and other property in the petitioner’s possession.

The petitioner then brought suit in Federal District Court challenging the constitutionality of the statute and seeking injunctive relief and damages from respondents and from the county sheriff and the deputies involved in the seizure.

The District Court struck down the statute itself on due process grounds, dismissed the suit against the government officials on the ground that they were entitled to qualified immunity, and held that the private respondents were also entitled to qualified immunity from suit for conduct arising prior to the statute’s invalidation.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Court of Appeals over whether private defendants threatened with suit and liability under 42 United States Code Section 1983 are, like certain government officials, entitled to qualified immunity from suit under the case of Harlow versus Fitzgerald which we handed down in 1982.

In an opinion filed today, we reverse and remand.

Even if the most closely analogous tort suits available at common law, which were abuse of process and malicious prosecution, even if they are sufficient to entitle the respondents to a good faith defense, these common law torts do not justify according private defendants the objectively determined, immediately appealable qualified immunity from suit that is accorded to certain government officials.

The special policy concerns militating in favor of qualified immunity for government officials are not applicable to private parties.

Extending qualified immunity to private parties would have no bearing on whether public officials are able to act forcefully and decisively in their jobs or on whether qualified applicants enter public service, nor would the public interest be unduly impaired if private individuals are required to proceed the trial.

Because the nexus between private parties and the historic purposes of qualified immunity is to attenuate it, we do not extend the immunity doctrine to private defendants.

Justice Kennedy filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Scalia has joined; the Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Souter and Thomas have joined.