California Supreme Court Rules Government Entities Are No Longer Immunized from Claims of Injuries Caused by Law Enforcement Investigations Pursuant To Government Claims Act (Cal. Gov’t Code Section 821.6)

By editor on August 09, 2023

Prior precedent in California law set forth broad immunity from liability based on the Government Claims Act for public employees due to negligent acts in wrongful prosecution. See Amylou R. v. County of Riverside (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 1205, 34 Cal.Rptr.2d 319, ruling that officers were immune from liability for intentional inflection of emotional distress based on statements made by police officers to victim’s friends in investigating alleged rape; and Citizens Capital Corp. v. Spohn (1982) 133 Cal.App.3d 887, 184 Cal.Rptr. 269, ruling that employees of the Department of Consumer Affairs were immune from liability for alleged conspiracy to destroy agencies’ businesses based on newspaper publicly reporting results of their official investigations.

However, the California Supreme Court overruled these previous rulings and precedent in its recently published opinion Leon v. Cnty. of Riverside, No. S269672, 2023 WL 4112144 (Cal. June 22, 2023), building on its recent (not recent)ruling in Sullivan v. County of Los Angeles (1974) 12 Cal.3d 710, 117 Cal.Rptr. 241, 527 P.2d 865 which provided no immunity for claims related specifically to false imprisonment.

Summarizing its’ ruling, the Supreme Court held: “The question before us is whether, as several Courts of Appeal have held, (the Government Claims Act pursuant to Cal. Gov’t Code § 821.6) also confers immunity from claims based on other injuries inflicted in the course of law enforcement investigations. The answer is no. While other provisions of the Government Claims Act may confer immunity for certain investigatory actions, section 821.6 does not broadly immunize police officers or other public employees for any and all harmful actions they may take in the course of investigating crime.” Leon v. Cnty. of Riverside, No. S269672, 2023 WL 4112144, at *1.

In this case, Plaintiff Dora Leon’s husband, José Leon, was shot and killed in the driveway of a mobile home lot near his home. When Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene, they heard additional shots. They dragged José behind a vehicle, where they unsuccessfully attempted to revive him. The movement caused José’s pants to slide down to his ankles, exposing his naked body. His body remained in that uncovered state for approximately eight hours while officers searched for the shooter and investigated the shooting. The officers ultimately determined that the shooter had killed himself shortly after killing José. No charges were filed. Dora sued, asserting a single cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The complaint alleged that the deputies and the public entity that employed them failed to exercise reasonable care when they left José’s body exposed and uncovered for hours, in view of both Dora and the general public.

As relevant here, the County argued that its employees were immune under section 821.6 for “all conduct related to the investigation and filing of charges.” Because the suit arose from steps taken while investigating José’s homicide, the County argued, both the employees and their employer were immune from liability. (See Gov. Code, §§ 815.2, 821.6.) The trial court agreed and entered judgment for the County. The Court of Appeal affirmed.

For many years before the Government Claims Act was enacted in 1963, California courts had applied a common law doctrine of governmental immunity that generally barred tort suits against public entities. In 1963, the Government Claims Act abolished common law tort liability and immunity for public entities, replacing it with “a comprehensive statutory scheme governing the liabilities and immunities of public entities and public employees for torts.” (Quigley v. Garden Valley Fire Protection Dist. (2019) 7 Cal.5th at p. 798, 803; see also Gov. Code, § 815.) As a general rule, the Act makes public entities liable for injuries proximately caused by their employees in the course of employment, but immunizes the public entity from liability when the employee is immune. (Gov. Code, § 815.2, subds. (a), (b).) The immunity provision at issue in this case, section 821.6, provides in full: “A public employee is not liable for injury caused by his instituting or prosecuting any judicial or administrative proceeding within the scope of his employment, even if he acts maliciously and without probable cause.”

In coming to its conclusion here, the Court reasoned from the plain language as well as the common law meaning behind Gov. Code, § 821.6, that the Act was not meant to provide immunity and reach the officer’s conduct in this case because a law enforcement investigation as described here of a potential homicide is not actionable as an institution or prosecution of a legal action pursuant to section 821.6.

The Court set a new rule, stating “If a law enforcement officer has initiated an official proceeding, the officer will enjoy immunity for that conduct under section 821.6, regardless of whether the officer’s conduct may include certain acts described as investigatory. Where, however, the plaintiff’s claim of injury does not stem from the initiation or prosecution of proceedings, section 821.6 immunity does not apply.” Leon v. Cnty. of Riverside, No. S269672, 2023 WL 4112144, at *6.

Going forward, applying the facts of a particular case will require a determination (1) if the law enforcement officer has initiated an official proceeding, or (2) if the injury did not stem from a prosecution of the proceedings to determine if section 821.6 immunity does apply. The facts at hand were prior to an initiation of proceedings and all tort actions were available for prosecution stemming from the law enforcement officer’s actions.

Based on this decision, public entities face increased liability based on the availability of prosecuting law enforcement actions in the course of investigations under section 821.6 and its immunity provisions.

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