Constitutional Torts - Bivens Actions
The Supreme Court created a private damages action against federal officials for constitutional torts (civil rights violations), which are not covered by the FTCA. In Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), the Court held that the Fourth Amendment gives rise to a right of action against federal law enforcement officials for damages from an unlawful search and seizure. Since a Bivens action is brought against a federal official in the official’s personal capacity, it is not considered to be an action against the United States and therefore is not barred by sovereign immunity. Bivens is not a general tort law. The plaintiff seeking a damages remedy under Bivens must first demonstrate that constitutional rights have been violated.[Davis v. Passman, 442 U.S. 228 (1979) ]
Bivens suits have been acknowledged by the Court as having more of a deterrence effect against federal officials from committing constitutional torts than the FTCA. This is chiefly because a Bivens suit is a personal suit against the official, and punitive damages are recoverable. The government is substituted for the defendant in FTCA cases, and the FTCA does not allow punitive damages. Thus a Bivens defendant is at risk of personal liability, including punitive damages, while the government pays all damages in FTCA cases. Procedurally, a plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial in a Bivens action, but not in a FTCA case.[Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14 (1980) ]
The main defense for a federal official in a Bivens action is official immunity from actions for damages. There are two types of official immunity available as affirmative defenses: absolute and qualified.[ Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978)] Absolute immunity is granted to judges, prosecutors, legislators, and the President, so long as they are acting within the scope of their duties. Qualified immunity applies to federal officials and agents who perform discretionary functions, but may be overcome by a showing that their conduct violated a constitutional right.[Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982) ] Absolute and qualified immunity are discussed more fully below.