Johnson v. Fankell, 520 U.S. 911 (1997)

Author: U.S. Supreme Court

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Johnson v. Fankell, 520 U.S. 911 (1997)

Johnson v. Fankell

No. 96-292

Argued February 26, 1997
Decided June 9, 1997
520 U.S. 911



Respondent filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 damages action in Idaho state court, alleging that the termination of her state employment by petitioner officials deprived her of property without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The trial court denied petitioners’ motion to dismiss, which asserted that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The Idaho Supreme Court dismissed their appeal from that ruling, explaining that the denial was neither an appealable final order under Idaho Appellate Rule 11(a)(1) nor appealable as a matter of federal right under § 1983.

Held: Defendants in a state court § 1983 action do not have a federal right to an interlocutory appeal from a denial of qualified immunity. Pp. 914-923.

(a) State officials performing discretionary functions have a "qualified immunity" defense that, in appropriate circumstances, shields them both from liability for damages under § 1983 and from the burdens of trial. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818. A federal district court order rejecting such a defense on the ground that the defendant’s actions -- if proven -- would have violated clearly established law may be appealed immediately as a "final decision" under the general federal appellate jurisdiction statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 524-530. Relying on respondent’s federal statutory claim and their own federal defense, petitioners submit that the Idaho courts must protect their right to avoid the burdens of trial by allowing the same interlocutory appeal that would be available in a federal court. Pp. 914-916.

(b) This Court rejects petitioners’ argument that, when the Idaho courts construe their own Rule 11(a)(1), they must accept the federal definition of a "final decision" in cases brought under § 1983. Even if the Idaho Rule and § 1291 contained identical language -- and they do not -- the Idaho Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Rule would be binding on federal courts, which have no authority to place a different construction upon it. See, e.g., New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 767. Idaho could voluntarily place the same construction on the Rule as the Mitchell Court placed on § 1291, but this Court cannot command that choice. Pp. 9116-918.

(c) Also unpersuasive is petitioners’ contention that Rule 11(a)(1) is preempted by § 1983 to the extent that it does not allow an interlocutory appeal. Petitioner’s arguments are not strong enough to overcome two considerable hurdles. First, the normal presumption against preemption is buttressed here by the fact that the Idaho Supreme Court’s dismissal of the appeal rested squarely on a neutral state rule for administering state courts. Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 372. Second, because the qualified immunity defense’s ultimate purpose is to protect the State and its officials from over-enforcement of federal rights, Rule 11(a)(1)’s application in this context is less an interference with federal interests, as petitioners claim, than a judgment about how best to balance competing state interests. In arguing that preemption is necessary to avoid different "outcomes" in § 1983 litigation based solely on whether the claim is asserted in state or federal court, petitioners misplace their reliance on Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131, 138. "[O]utcom[e]," as used there, referred to the ultimate disposition of the case, whereas the postponement of the appeal until after final judgment will not affect the ultimate outcome of this case if petitioners’ qualified immunity claim is meritorious. Their argument that Rule 11(a)(1) does not adequately protect their right to prevail on the immunity question in advance of trial also fails, given the precise source and scope of the federal right at issue. In contrast to the right to have the trial court rule on the immunity defense’s merits, which presumably has its source in § 1983 and is fully protected by Idaho, the right to immediate appellate review of such a ruling in a federal case has its source in § 1291, not § 1983, see Johnson v. Jones, 515 U.S. 304, 317, and is a federal procedural right that simply does not apply in a nonfederal forum. Pp. 918-923.


STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.


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Chicago: U.S. Supreme Court, "Syllabus," Johnson v. Fankell, 520 U.S. 911 (1997) in 520 U.S. 911 520 U.S. 912–520 U.S. 913. Original Sources, accessed March 19, 2019,

MLA: U.S. Supreme Court. "Syllabus." Johnson v. Fankell, 520 U.S. 911 (1997), in 520 U.S. 911, pp. 520 U.S. 912–520 U.S. 913. Original Sources. 19 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: U.S. Supreme Court, 'Syllabus' in Johnson v. Fankell, 520 U.S. 911 (1997). cited in 1997, 520 U.S. 911, pp.520 U.S. 912–520 U.S. 913. Original Sources, retrieved 19 March 2019, from