Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158 (1992)

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WYATT v. COLE et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 91-126. Argued January 14, 1992—Decided May 18, 1992

With the assistance of respondent Robbins, an attorney, respondent Cole filed a complaint under the Mississippi replevin statute against his partner, petitioner Wyatt. After Cole refused to comply with a state court order to return to Wyatt property seized under the statute, Wyatt brought suit in the Federal District Court under 42 U. S. C. 1983, challenging the state statute's constitutionality and seeking injunctive relief and damages. Among other things, the court held the statute unconstitutional and assumed that Cole was subject to liability under Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U. S. 922, in which this Court ruled that private defendants invoking state replevin, garnishment, and attachment statutes later declared unconstitutional act under color of state law for 1983 liability purposes. The court also intimated that, but did not decide whether, Robbins was subject to 1983 liability. However, Lugar had left open the question whether private defendants are entitled to qualified immunity from suit in such cases, see id., at 942, n. 23, and the District Court held that respondents were entitled to qualified immunity at least for conduct arising prior to the replevin statute's invalidation. The Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of qualified immunity to respondents without revisiting the question of their 1983 liability.

Held: 1. Qualified immunity from suit, as enunciated by this Court with respect to government officials, is not available to private defendants charged with 1983 liability for invoking state replevin, garnishment, or attachment statutes. Immunity for private defendants was not so firmly rooted in the common law and was not supported by such strong policy reasons as to create an inference that Congress meant to incorporate it into 1983. See, e. g., Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U. S. 622, 637. Even if there were sufficient common law support to conclude that private defendants should be entitled to a good faith and/or probable cause defense to suits for unjustified harm arising out of the misuse of governmental processes, that would still not entitle respondents to what they obtained in the courts below: the type of objectively determined, immediately appealable, qualified immunity from suit accorded government officials under, e. g., Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S.

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