Qualified immunity: an overview
“Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan (07-751). Specifically, it protects government officials from lawsuits alleging that they violated plaintiffs’ rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. When determining whether or not a right was “clearly established,” courts consider whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights. Courts conducting this analysis apply the law that was in force at the time of the alleged violation, not the law in effect when the court considers the case.
Qualified immunity is not immunity from having to pay money damages, but rather immunity from having to go through the costs of a trial at all. Accordingly, courts must resolve qualified immunity issues as early in a case as possible, preferably before discovery.
Qualified immunity only applies to suits against government officials as individuals, not suits against the government for damages caused by the officials’ actions. Although qualified immunity frequently appears in cases involving police officers, it also applies to most other executive branch officials. While judges, prosecutors, legislators, and some other government officials do not receive qualified immunity, most are protected by other immunity doctrines.
Recently, in Pearson v. Callahan (07-751), the Supreme Court held that courts considering officials’ qualified immunity claims do not need to consider whether or not the officials actually violated a plaintiff’s right if it is clear that the right was not clearly established.