Supreme Court case elicits ‘shenanigans,’ demonstrates need for professionalism

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law, and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness,” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

Filarsky v Delia, a recent Supreme Court case, turned out to be a lot more interesting, not for the facts that are straightforward, but for the shenanigans following the ruling. Essentially, the case issue turned on whether the defendant was entitled to qualified immunity for performing work on a contract basis for a city government.  

The case started when Nicholas B. Delia, an employee of the city of Rialto, Calif., took three weeks off work due to illness. The city subsequently became suspicious of his extended leave and hired a private investigator who observed Delia buying business supplies including fiberglass insulation. Believing Delia to be performing building work on his home, the city hired a private attorney, Steve A. Filarsky, to interview Delia.

Delia admitted to buying the materials but denied using them for work on his home. Filarsky asked Delia to allow fire department officials to enter his home in order to inspect the allegedly unused materials. Delia, on the advice of his attorney, refused so Filarsky ordered him to bring the materials outside for an inspection. Delia brought a section 1983 action against the city, claiming his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the order to bring the materials outside.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether Filarsky was entitled to qualified immunity. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous verdict, answered that question in the affirmative. In reaching that conclusion, the court looked to the leading rationales behind government tort immunity. The focus of Chief Justice John G. Roberts’s opinion was on the allowing the government freedom to perform its public duties to best of its ability with the best available talent and without the deterrent effects and potential distractions of lawsuits.

This is where the story gets bigger and stranger.

After the Supreme Court delivered its verdict, Filarsky sent the plaintiff a letter on his firm’s letterhead.

It read: “Dear Mr. Delia: Congratulations. You are now in the history books! You will be able to read about it for eternity. From hell. Not so sincerely, Steve A. Filarsky.”

Obviously, litigation can be acrimonious sometimes. And there is part of us deep down that might get some satisfaction from sending a bitter letter like that after winning a big case. But we, as lawyers, should know better.  We must be bigger than that. This kind of conduct really serves no purpose. Filarsky’s professional reputation, which I am sure has taken a long time to build, has now been called into question. And for what? A chance to gloat at a defeated opponent? This episode reminded me of how important it is to always treat peers with respect and conduct ourselves with dignity.

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