The Supreme Court set the modern standards for qualified immunity in
v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)
. The Court ruled that government officials
performing discretionary functions should be protected from liability for civil
damages if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or
constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would be aware. Id. at 819.
Those who are plainly incompetent or who knowingly violate the law cannot
invoke qualified immunity. Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986). Therefore,
the official will be protected from Bivens or § 1983 liability for a discretionary
act unless the violated constitutional right is of such a basic nature that a
reasonable person would have known it, or if the official breaks a law. This
analysis requires a case-by-case analysis that is often unpredictable and
difficult to determine. Additionally, qualified immunity might be defeated by
showing that the official acted with malice or corrupt motives.
To defeat a defendant’s claim of immunity, plaintiffs must show a violation of a
constitutional right that the defendant knew or should have known, or a
violation of law. To illustrate, a Michigan appeals court ruled that qualified
immunity did not shield the superintendent of a state psychiatric hospital from
liability under § 1983 for the violation of a deceased patient's constitutional
rights where facts indicated in the plaintiff’s pleadings alleged that the
superintendent's conduct in failing to attend the medical needs of the patient
violated a clearly established constitutional right of which reasonable person
should have known. Gordon v. Sadasivan, 373 N.W. 2d 258 (Mich. App. 1985).