Siegert v. H Gilley/Opinion of the Court
We granted certiorari in this case to determine whether the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit properly directed dismissal of petitioner's Bivens claim on the grounds that he had not overcome respondent's claim of qualified immunity. The Court of Appeals relied on its "heightened pleading standard," but we hold that petitioner's claim failed at an analytically earlier stage of the inquiry into qualified immunity: his allegations, even if accepted as true, did not state a claim for violation of any rights secured to him under the United States Constitution.
Petitioner Frederick A. Siegert, a clinical psychologist, was employed at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a Federal Government facility in Washington, D.C., from November 1979 to October 1985. He was a behavior therapy coordinator specializing in work with mentally retarded children and, to a lesser extent, with adults. In January 1985, respondent H. Melvin Gilley became head of the division for which Siegert worked.
In August 1985, St. Elizabeth's notified Siegert that it was preparing to terminate his employment. Siegert was informed that his "proposed removal was based upon his inability to report for duty in a dependable and reliable manner, his failure to comply with supervisory directives, and cumulative charges of absence without approved leave." App. 15, 21. After meeting with hospital officials, Siegert agreed to resign from the hospital and thereby avoid a termination that might damage his reputation. Id., at 21.
Following his resignation from St. Elizabeth's, Siegert began working as a clinical psychologist at a United States Army Hospital in Bremerhaven, West Germany. Because of the requirement that he be "credentialed" to work in hospitals operated by the Army, Siegert signed a "Credential Information Request Form" asking that St. Elizabeth's Hospital provide to his prospective supervisor, Colonel William Smith, "all information on job performance and the privileges" he had enjoyed while a member of its staff. Siegert's request was referred to Gilley because he had been Siegert's supervisor at St. Elizabeth's.
In response to Siegert's request, Gilley notified the Army by letter that "he could not recommend [Siegert] for privileges as a psychologist." Id., at 6. In that letter, Gilley wrote that he "consider[ed] Dr. Siegert to be both inept and unethical, perhaps the least trustworthy individual I have supervised in my thirteen years at [St. Elizabeth's]." Ibid. After receiving this letter, the Army Credentials Committee told Siegert that since "reports about him were 'extremely unfavorable' . . . the committee was . . . recommending that [Siegert] not be credentialed." Id., at 7.
After being denied credentials by the Committee, Siegert was turned down for a position he sought with an Army hospital in Stuttgart. Siegert then returned to Bremerhaven where he was given provisional credentials, limited to his work with adults. Siegert filed administrative appeals with the Office of the Surgeon General to obtain full credentials. In December 1987, the Surgeon General denied Siegert's claims. Soon thereafter, his "federal service employment [was] terminated." Id., at 23.
Upon learning of Gilley's letter in November 1986, Siegert filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that Gilley's letter had caused him to lose his post as a psychologist at the Bremerhaven Army Hospital, and had rendered him unable to obtain other appropriate employment in the field. Relying on Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 , 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619 (1971), Siegert sought $4 million in damages against Gilley, contending thatâ€”"by maliciously and in bad faith publishing a defamatory per se statement . . . which [he] knew to be untrue, or with reckless disregard as to whether it was true or not,"â€”Gilley had caused an infringement of his "liberty interests" in violation of the protections afforded by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. App. 9. Siegert also asserted pendent state-law claims of defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with contractual relations.
Gilley filed a motion to dismiss or in the alternative for summary judgment. He contended that Siegert's factual allegations, even if true, did not make out a violation of any constitutional right. Gilley also asserted the defense of qualified immunity under Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 , 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982), contending that Siegert's allegations did not state the violation of any "clearly established" constitutional right. App. to Pet. for Cert. 30a-31a, 36a. Siegert submitted opposing affidavits stating facts supporting his allegations of malice.
In December 1987, the District Court issued an order "[declining] to decide this matter on a Summary Judgment motion at this time." Id., at 54a. Instead, the court determined that "[it] would like to see a more developed record," and therefore ordered "a limited amount of discovery." Ibid. In particular, the court directed the taking of the depositions of the parties and Colonel Smith.
Gilley filed a motion for reconsideration, asking the court to stay further discovery pending disposition of his qualified immunity claim. In June, 1988, the District Court denied the motion, and in a written opinion found that Siegert's factual allegations were sufficient to state violations of a clearly established constitutional right. It analyzed our decision in Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693 , 96 S.Ct. 1155, 47 L.Ed.2d 405 (1976), but found this case closer on its facts to two decisions of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Doe v. United States Department of Justice, 243 U.S.App.D.C. 354, 753 F.2d 1092 (1985), and Bartel v. FAA, 233 U.S.App.D.C. 297, 725 F.2d 1403 (1985). The court directed the parties to proceed with the previously ordered limited discovery. Gilley appealed the denial of his qualified immunity defense to the Court of Appeals pursuant to Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 , 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985).
A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed and remanded with instructions that the case be dismissed. The court first determined that to the extent Siegert's Bivens action was premised on allegations of improper conduct irrespective of subjective intent, the allegations did not state a claim for violation of any clearly established constitutional right. In the course of that analysis, it concluded that the District Court had mistakenly relied on its decisions in Doe, supra, and Bartel, supra.
The Court of Appeals then turned to Siegert's allegation that Gilley wrote the letter with bad faith and malice. Assuming "that such bad faith motivation would suffice to make Gilley's actions in writing the letter a violation of Siegert's [clearly established] constitutional rights," 282 U.S.App.D.C. 392, 398, 895 F.2d 797 , 803 (1990), the court held that Siegert's allegations of improper motivation were insufficient to overcome Gilley's assertion of qualified immunity. The court explained that where, as here, improper purpose is an essential element of a constitutional tort action, the plaintiff must adequately allege specific, direct evidence of illicit intentâ€”as opposed to merely circumstantial evidence of bad intentâ€”in order to defeat the defendant's motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment asserting qualified immunity. Id., at 395-396, 398-399, 895 F.2d, at 800-801, 803-804a.
The Court of Appeals then determined that Siegert's allegations did not satisfy that "heightened pleading standard." Id., at 400, 895 F.2d, at 805. It found that Siegert's complaint "merely asserts (and reasserts) that in making the statement [Gilley] 'knew [it] to be false or [made it] with reckless disregard as to whether it was true,' " Id., at 398, 895 F.2d, at 803 (citation omitted), and that Siegert's affidavits failed "to add anything more tangible to the record. . . ." Ibid.
We granted certiorari, 498 U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 292, 112 L.Ed.2d 246 (1990), in order to clarify the analytical structure under which a claim of qualified immunity should be addressed. We hold that the petitioner in this case failed to satisfy the first inquiry in the examination of such a claim; he failed to allege the violation of a clearly established constitutional right.
We have on several occasions addressed the proper analytical framework for determining whether a plaintiff's allegations are sufficient to overcome a defendant's defense of qualified immunity asserted in a motion for summary judgment. Qualified immunity is a defense that must be pleaded by a defendant official. Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635 , 100 S.Ct. 1920, 64 L.Ed.2d 572 (1980); Harlow, 457 U.S., at 815, 102 S.Ct., at 2736-2737. Once a defendant pleads a defense of qualified immunity, "[o]n summary judgment, the judge appropriately may determine, not only the currently applicable law, but whether that law was clearly established at the time an action occurred. . . . Until this threshold immunity question is resolved, discovery should not be allowed." Id., at 818, 102 S.Ct., at 2738.
In this case, Siegert based his constitutional claim on the theory that Gilley's actions, undertaken with malice, deprived him of a "liberty interest" secured by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He contended that the loss of his position at the Bremerhaven Hospital, followed by the refusal of the Army hospital in Stuttgart to consider his application for employment, and his general inability to find comparable work because of Gilley's letter, constituted such a deprivation. The Court of Appeals agreed with respondent that in the absence of an allegation of malice, petitioner had stated no constitutional claim. But it then went on to "assume[ ] without deciding, that [Gilley's] bad faith motivation would suffice to make [his] actions in writing the letter a violation of Siegert's constitutional rights, and that the process given by the credentialing review was not adequate to meet due process requirements." 282 U.S.App.D.C., at 398, 895 F.2d, at 803. We think the Court of Appeals should not have assumed without deciding this preliminary issue in this case, and proceeded to examine the sufficiency of the allegations of malice.
In Harlow we said that "[u]ntil this threshold immunity question is resolved, discovery should not be allowed." Harlow, supra, at 818, 102 S.Ct., at 2738 (emphasis added). A necessary concomitant to the determination of whether the constitutional right asserted by a plaintiff is "clearly established" at the time the defendant acted is the determination of whether the plaintiff has asserted a violation of a constitutional right at all. Decision of this purely legal question permits courts expeditiously to weed out suits which fail the test without requiring a defendant who rightly claims qualified immunity to engage in expensive and time consuming preparation to defend the suit on its merits. One of the purposes of immunity, absolute or qualified, is to spare a defendant not only unwarranted liability, but unwarranted demands customarily imposed upon those defending a long drawn out lawsuit. In Mitchell v. Forsyth, supra, we said: "Harlow thus recognized an entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation, conditioned on the resolution of the essentially legal question whether the conduct of which the plaintiff complains violated clearly established law. The entitlement is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability; and like an absolute immunity, it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial." Id., at 526, 105 S.Ct., at 2815.
This case demonstrates the desirability of this approach to a claim of immunity, for Siegert not only failed to allege the violation of a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of Gilley's actions, but he failed to establish the violation of any constitutional right at all.
In Paul v. Davis, the plaintiff's photograph was included by local police chiefs in a "flyer" of "active shoplifters," after petitioner had been arrested for shoplifting. The shoplifting charge was eventually dismissed, and the plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. Â§ 1983 against the police chiefs, alleging that the officials' actions inflicted a stigma to his reputation that would seriously impair his future employment opportunities, and thus deprived him under color of state law of liberty interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
We rejected the plaintiff's claim, holding that injury to reputation by itself was not a "liberty" interest protected under the Fourteenth Amendment. 424 U.S., at 708-709, 96 S.Ct., at 1164-1165. We pointed out that our reference to a governmental employer stigmatizing an employee in Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 , 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972), was made in the context of the employer discharging or failing to rehire a plaintiff who claimed a liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment. Defamation, by itself, is a tort actionable under the laws of most States, but not a constitutional deprivation.
The facts alleged by Siegert cannot, in the light of our decision in Paul v. Davis, be held to state a claim for denial of a constitutional right. This is not a suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Actâ€”such a suit could not be brought, in the light of the exemption in that act for claims based on defamation, see 28 U.S.C. Â§ 2680(h),â€”but a suit against Siegert's superior at St. Elizabeth's hospital. The alleged defamation was not uttered incident to the termination of Siegert's employment by the hospital, since he voluntarily resigned from his position at the hospital, and the letter was written several weeks later. The statements contained in the letter would undoubtedly damage the reputation of one in his position, and impair his future employment prospects. But the plaintiff in Paul v. Davis similarly alleged serious impairment of his future employment opportunities as well as other harm. Most defamation plaintiffs attempt to show some sort of special damage and out-of-pocket loss which flows from the injury to their reputation. But so long as such damage flows from injury caused by the defendant to a plaintiff's reputation, it may be recoverable under state tort law but it is not recoverable in a Bivens action. Siegert did assert a claim for defamation in this case, but made no allegations as to diversity of citizenship between himself and respondent.
The Court of Appeals assumed, without deciding, that if petitioner satisfactorily alleged that respondent's letter was written with malice, a constitutional claim would be stated. Siegert in this Court asserts that this assumption was correct that if the defendant acted with malice in defaming him, what he describes as the "stigma plus" test of Paul v. Davis is met. Our decision in Paul v. Davis did not turn, however, on the state of mind of the defendant, but on the lack of any constitutional protection for the interest in reputation.
The Court of Appeals' majority concluded that the District Court should have dismissed petitioner's suit because he had not overcome the defense of qualified immunity asserted by respondent. By a different line of reasoning, we reach the same conclusion, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore