Government employees and officials are granted “qualified immunity” in suits where they act in good faith and with a reasonable belief that their actions comply with the law. Most frequently, qualified immunity is discussed in connection with cases alleging the use of excessive force by police officers. However, a recent case before the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals indicates this may apply to public employers in Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) cases.
Rebecca Sterling worked at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College (UAPTC). She received FMLA leave to care for her mother who had cancer. While on leave, she was notified that her position was being eliminated in an upcoming reorganization, so she applied for a different position at the school.
A hiring committee led by Bentley Wallace interviewed Sterling and five other candidates. After the interview, the committee hired another applicant who was given a more favorable interview score from Wallace. Sterling alleged that she was more qualified than the other applicant.
Sterling sued the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, Wallace, and UAPTC. Among other claims, she alleged Wallace discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of the FMLA. It should be remembered that (unlike most other statutes prohibiting discrimination) the Act provides for personal liability against supervisors and officials.
The defendants moved for summary judgment (dismissal without a trial) and argued that Wallace was entitled to qualified immunity on the FMLA claim. The district court denied the summary-judgment motion and rejected Wallace’s qualified immunity defense on the ground that “qualified immunity is not available to defendants on an FMLA claim.”
The district court ruled it was improper to dismiss the FMLA claim without a trial. The defendants immediately appealed the denial of Wallace’s qualified immunity claim and sought a determination of that issue before trial.
8th Circuit Reverses
The 8th Circuit determined the district court rejected Wallace’s qualified immunity defense based on a misreading of a statement from a previous court decision. It concluded the district court’s “sweeping interpretation” that qualified immunity is never available to FMLA defendants wasn’t proper. Rather, it ruled that a court must examine the nature of the particular conduct in question.
The 8th Circuit reversed the ruling that qualified immunity was never available under the FMLA and sent the case back to the district court to determine if it applied to this case.
What This Means for Employers
First, it must be remembered that this case applies only to public employers. There’s no qualified immunity defense available to private employers. Second, it doesn’t promise that qualified immunity will always be available (even to public employers).
It does provide public employers with a possible defense, however. This is particularly important for government officials and employees who are personally being sued.
Qualified immunity permits plaintiffs to sue only when a government official or employee violates a clearly established right. It’s intended to strike a balance between holding government representatives accountable and protecting them from harassing litigation. Because of this, courts look to whether a “reasonable” official would have known that the conduct in question violated the plaintiff’s rights.
Qualified immunity isn’t just immunity from paying damages. It’s immunity from even being sued. If it applies, there’s no need to even provide a defense. The defendant therefore avoids incurring the costs of a trial altogether. Needless to say, avoiding such costs is particularly important to individual officials and employees who would otherwise face personal liability.