Siegert v. Gilley
Decided on May 23, 1991; 500 US 226


A. Issues Discussed:  Governmental Authority (civil procedure), 5th Amendment, due process

B. Legal Question Presented: 

Did the petitioner's action state a claim for violation of any clearly established constitutional right?  That is, did his claim overcome the respondent's defense of qualified immunity?


A. Background:

Siegert (Petitioner) was employed as a clinical psychologist at a federal government hospital. After being informed that his performance was unacceptable and that he would be terminated, Siegert agreed to resign from the hospital in order to avoid damage to his reputation.  Gilley (Respondent) had been Siegert’s supervisor at the hospital. 

Siegert found work at a U.S. Army hospital in West Germany.  His employment was conditional on his being "credentialed" to work in an Army hospital; he therefore signed a credential request form asking his former hospital to provide the Army with information on his past job performance.  Gilley responded to the request by writing a letter to the Army stating that he could not recommend Siegert because he considered him "to be both inept and unethical, perhaps the least trustworthy individual I have supervised…."  Siegert was denied credentials, and eventually, after exhausting all administrative appeals, he was not able to obtain further employment in federal service.

Siegert then sued Gilley for damages, claiming that Gilley’s letter had been maliciously defamatory and had caused him to lose his post and make him unable to obtain other employment in the field; he claimed that Gilley had caused an infringement of his "liberty interests" in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.  Gilley claimed that no constitutional rights were violated and asserted the defense of qualified immunity (available for executive government officials); he requested the Distict Court to dismiss the lawsuit or to grant summary judgment in his favor.  The District Court denied the request, and Gilley appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed and directed the District Court to dismiss the case.  Siegert then brought the case to the United State Supreme Court.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Nina Kraut argued the cause and filed briefs for Petitioner. Michael R. Laserwitz argued the cause for Respondent.  With him on the brief were Acting Solicitor General Roberts, Assistant Attorney General Gerson, Deputy Solicitor General Shapiro, and Barbara L. Herwig.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
David H. Remes, David Rudovsky, Steven R. Shapiro, and Arthur B. Spitzer filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, et al., as amici curiae, urging reversal. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.

"We granted certiorari… 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…  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…  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…

Siegert not only failed to allege the violation of a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of Gilley’s actions, but also to establish the violation of any constitutional right at all... [We have held] that injury to reputation by itself was not a 'liberty' interest protected under the Fourteenth Amendment… Defamation, by itself, is a tort actionable under the laws of most States, but not a constitutional deprivation...

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 Affirmed."
Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined Marshall's dissenting opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined parts II and III of Marshall's dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the United States Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.