Supreme Court upholds legal immunity for federal employees

The Supreme Court has rejected a challenge to federal employees' immunity from on-the-job lawsuits.

In a 7-2 decision last week, the high court ruled that the government can insert itself as the defendant in lawsuits against federal workers who claim innocence, even if the alleged act was not part of the accused employee's job description.

"It would make scant sense to read the [law] as leaving an employee charged with an intentional tort to fend for himself when he denies wrongdoing," Justice Ruth Ginsburg said in the majority opinion for Osborn v. Haley. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

In the case, government contractor Pat Osborn sued a Forest Service employee for allegedly convincing her employer, the Land Between the Lakes Association Inc., to fire her. Osborn claimed the employee, Barry Haley, did this after she confronted him for not hiring her for an open contracting officer position with the Forest Service.

A federal court in Kentucky, where the case originated, found that if Haley did get Osborn fired, that act was not in his job description, making him responsible for his own defense. The government appealed and won in the 6th District Court of Appeals, which covers Kentucky and several other states. The Supreme Court decision affirmed the appeals court's ruling.

Under the 1988 Westfall Act, federal employees are immune from lawsuits as long as the Attorney General certifies that they were doing their job when the incident in question occurred. The government can then substitute itself as the defendant.

Now the court has affirmed that the Attorney General can certify an act as job-related simply by denying that the incident ever occurred. The justices also affirmed that in such circumstances the cases should be heard in federal court, rather than at the state level. The government's involvement requires federal jurisdiction.

Justice Stephen Breyer sided with Ginsburg's opinion because of issues such as federal jurisdiction, but he disagreed that an innocence claim should be grounds for immunity.

"Consider, for example, an aggravated sexual assault…on Coney Island where the government employee, say a Yellowstone Park forest ranger, if present on Coney Island must have been there on a frolic of his own," Breyer said.

Scalia's dissenting opinion focused on the court's jurisdiction in this case, not on the ability of the government to step in on behalf of its employees.

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