Palkimas v. Bella
Government employees who allegedly violate a citizen's constitutional right to privacy can be immune from suit, unless the right to privacy is clearly established. In 2005, a prosecutor allegedly requested that Andrew Whelan, who worked at the Department of Children and Families, write a letter about the plaintiff, Richard Palkimas, and Palkimas' family. Another prosecutor allegedly disclosed the letter to a judge. Palkimas was removed from an anger management course and prosecuted. Palkimas sued, alleging that the defendants violated his right to privacy. In 2012, the District Court found that defendants Kathy Bella and Andrew Whelan were entitled to qualified immunity and granted their motion for summary judgment. Palkimas appealed, arguing that the District Court wrongly concluded that he did not have a clearly established privacy right that was violated when the DCF letter was forwarded to the state's attorneys' office. "For a constitutional right to be clearly established, its contours must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right,' " pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision, Hope v. Pelzer. In a 1994 decision, Doe v. City of New York, the 2nd Circuit recognized a "constitutional right to privacy in personal information . . . characterized as a right to confidentiality.' " Although the constitutional right to privacy in personal information is established as a broad, general proposition, the right to freedom from involuntary disclosure of information, such as that in the DCF letter, is not clearly established. The 2nd Circuit rejected Palkimas' claim it was clear to the defendants, as a result of 2nd Circuit decisions on the constitutional right of privacy, that disclosure of the DCF letter would violate his constitutional right of privacy. "[T]here is enough variation among the cases in this Circuit," wrote the 2nd Circuit, "that Defendants were without clear guidance." The defendants could not have known, when they requested the letter and forwarded it to the prosecutors who handled Palkimas' criminal case, that they would violate Palkimas' constitutional right to privacy. The 2nd Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court, Thompson, J.