What is Qualified Immunity?

Legal Definition
Qualified immunity is a doctrine in U.S. federal law that arises in cases brought against state officials under 42 U.S.C Section 1983 and against federal officials under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). Qualified immunity, when applicable, shields government officials from liability, unless their actions are found to violate an individual's federal constitutional rights. This grant of immunity is available to state or federal employees performing discretionary functions where their actions, even if later found to be unlawful, did not violate "clearly established law". The defense of qualified immunity was created by the U.S. Supreme Court, replacing a court's inquiry into a defendant's subjective state of mind with an inquiry into the objective reasonableness of the contested action. A government agent's liability in a federal civil rights lawsuit now no longer turns upon whether the defendant acted with "malice", but on whether a hypothetical reasonable person in the defendant's position would have known that his or her actions violated clearly established law.

As outlined by the Supreme Court in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), qualified immunity is designed to shield government officials from actions "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."

While Harlow did not involve a law enforcement officer’s actions, the decision is significant because law enforcement officers are government officials who perform discretionary functions and may be protected by qualified immunity. This shield of immunity is an objective test designed to protect all but “the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” (Malley v. Briggs). Stated differently (but just as comforting to law enforcement officers), officers are not liable for damages “as long as their actions reasonably could have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have violated.” (Anderson v. Creighton)

In 2001, the Supreme Court in Saucier v. Katz established a rigid order in which courts must decide the merits of a defendant's qualified immunity defense. First, the court determines whether the complaint states a constitutional violation. If so, the next sequential step is to determine whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the official's conduct. The Court subsequently overruled Saucier in Pearson v. Callahan, holding that the two-step procedure was no longer mandatory.
-- Wikipedia
Legal Definition
“Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan (07-751). Specifically, it protects government officials from lawsuits alleging that they violated plaintiffs’ rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. When determining whether or not a right was “clearly established,” courts consider whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights. Courts conducting this analysis apply the law that was in force at the time of the alleged violation, not the law in effect when the court considers the case.

Qualified immunity is not immunity from having to pay money damages, but rather immunity from having to go through the costs of a trial at all. Accordingly, courts must resolve qualified immunity issues as early in a case as possible, preferably before discovery.

Qualified immunity only applies to suits against government officials as individuals, not suits against the government for damages caused by the officials’ actions. Although qualified immunity frequently appears in cases involving police officers, it also applies to most other executive branch officials. While judges, prosecutors, legislators, and some other government officials do not receive qualified immunity, most are protected by other immunity doctrines.

Recently, in Pearson v. Callahan (07-751), the Supreme Court held that courts considering officials’ qualified immunity claims do not need to consider whether or not the officials actually violated a plaintiff’s right if it is clear that the right was not clearly established.
Illustrative caselaw
See, e.g. Safford Unified School Dist. #1 v. Redding, 129 S.Ct. 2633 (2009).
See also
  • Sovereign immunity