Torts (Sov. Immunity): ROWAN COUNTY, KY V. SLOAS (SC 9/21/2006)

DATE RENDERED: 9/21/2006

Welcome to the new Court, same as the old Court, we won’t get fooled again. In an extremely long opinion, the Supremes continue to strengthen sovereign and official immunity under Kentucky law. At its core, this case is about injury to a state prison inmate assigned to a county jail while working in a Class D felony work program run by the jailer. There are a number of interesting aspects of this case, some of which relate to the issues under consideration and some which do not.

First, you might want to note that the Sloas Court relies in part on the unpublished case of Kegler v. City of Livionia. 173 F.3d 429 (table) (6th Cir. 1999). This seems inconsistent with CR 76.28(4)(c). Or it could mean that the rule prohibiting citation to unpublished opinions only applies to Kentucky cases designated not to be published.

Another interesting aspect of this case is the extent to which the Court seemingly disregards Kentucky’s summary judgment standard. As I read the opinion, the Court’s discussion of the appropriateness of the trial court’s granting summary judgment in the case, the Court seems much closer to the federal standard set forth in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986); and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986) than it is to Steelvest, Inc. v. Scansteel Service Center, Inc., 807 S.W.2d 476, 479 (Ky. 1991). In any event, the standard applied in Sloas is a far cry from the one applied in Pan-American Life Ins. Co. v. Roethke, 30 S.W.3d 128 (Ky. 2000), in which Justice Cooper lamented the passing of summary judgments under Kentucky law. Id. at 134 (Cooper, J. dissenting).

The final point of sufficient importance to note here is the disagreement between the majority opinion and the dissent as to the meaning of “scope of authority” in the context official immunity. If you’ve forgotten the rule on official immunity, here it is as explained by Justice Cooper: “[W]hen sued in their individual capacities, public officers and employees enjoy only qualified official immunity, which affords protection from damages liability for good faith judgment calls made in a legally uncertain environment.” Yanero v. Davis, 65 S.W.3d 510, 522 (Ky. 2001). Additionally, the immunity only attaches for discretionary acts performed within the general scope of the official’s authority.

At issue in Sloas was a statutory requirement that a jailer could implement a community work program for prisoners and inmates only pursuant to a written policy adopted by the fiscal court on advice of the jailer. The jailer in Sloas was operating a work program with no written policy in place in clear violation of the statute. The question before the Court was whether this violation of the statute took running the jail’s Class D felony work program outside the scope of the jailer’s authority.

According to the majority, whether a public official is acting within the scope of his or her authority is answered broadly by looking to whether the act bears “more or less a connection with general matters committed by law to the [public official’s] control or supervision, which are not manifestly or palpably beyond his [or her] authority.” Slip op. at 37. Based on this standard, the majority found that the work program fell within the scope of the jailer’s authority.

The dissent took the position that the “scope of authority” inquiry focuses on “whether the official had the legal authority to engage in the conduct in question rather than the propriety of the manner in which the conduct was performed.” Id., dissenting opinion at 1. Based on this standard, the dissent concluded that the work program fell outside of the scope of the jailer’s authority because of the violation of the statute. 

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