Pinal County v. Cooper (10/20/2015)

November 3, 2015

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that evidence that a government official acted with spite or ill will is not sufficient to defeat qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity protects certain government officials from liability in some circumstances.  A plaintiff may defeat a claim of qualified immunity by showing that the official acted with objective malice.  Evidence of mere subjective malice is not enough for a plaintiff to overcome the immunity. 

Here, a Pinal County employee sued the Pinal County Manager for various torts including defamation.  The County Manager moved for summary judgment based on his qualified immunity.  The Court of Appeals granted a petition for special action after the superior court denied the motion.

The Court of Appeals granted relief, holding as a matter of law that the County Manager was entitled to qualified immunity because the plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence of objective malice.  The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the acrimonious nature of the relationship between the parties could support a finding of subjective malice (i.e., that the government official acted with spite or ill will), but that is not sufficient to overcome qualified immunity.  The evidence established that there were objectively reasonable bases for the County Manager’s actions.  Consequently, he was entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment.

Judge Swann authored the opinion; Judges Gould and Thumma joined.