Richardson v. McKnight, 521 U.S. 399 (1997)

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

No. 96-318. Argued March 19, 1997—Decided June 23, 1997

Respondent McKnight, a prisoner at a Tennessee correctional center whose management had been privatized, filed this constitutional tort action under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 for physical injuries inflicted by petitioner prison guards. The District Court denied petitioners' motion to dismiss, finding that, since they were employed by a private prison management firm, they were not entitled to qualified immunity from § 1983 lawsuits. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Prison guards employed by a private firm are not entitled to a qualified immunity from suit by prisoners charging a § 1983 violation. Pp. 402-414. (a) Four aspects of Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U. S. 158—in which this Court found no § 1983 immunity for private defendants charged with invoking state replevin, garnishment, and attachment statutes later declared unconstitutional—are instructive here. First, § 1983—which deters state actors from depriving individuals of their federally protected rights— can sometimes impose liability upon private individuals. Second, a distinction exists between an immunity from suit—which frees one from liability whether or not he acted wrongly—and other legal defenses— which may well involve the essence of the wrong. Third, history and the purposes underlying § 1983 immunity determine whether private defendants enjoy protection from suit. Fourth, the Wyatt holding was limited to the narrow question before the Court and is not applicable to all private individuals. Pp. 402-404. (b) History does not reveal a firmly rooted tradition of immunity applicable to privately employed prison guards. While government-employed prison guards may have enjoyed a kind of immunity defense arising out of their status as public employees at common law, see Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U. S. 555, 561-562, correctional functions have never been exclusively public. In the 19th century both private entities and government itself carried on prison management activities. There is no conclusive evidence of a historical tradition of immunity for private parties carrying out these functions. Pp. 404-407. (c) The immunity doctrine's purposes also do not warrant immunity for private prison guards. Mere performance of a governmental function does not support immunity for a private person, especially one who


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