City Officials Immune in Challenge to Sale and Lease of Public Property
In a decision filed October 6, 2010 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that various city officials were immune from liability regarding their decision to lease and sell certain public property. In the case, Community House, Inc. v. City of Boise, Idaho, 09-35780, Community House leased a building containing a homeless shelter and low income housing from the City for over ten years, but in 2004, the City terminated the lease. The next year, the City leased the building to another organization that provided similar services, but that had a religious focus, and later sold the building to the other organization pursuant to an option to purchase clause in the lease. Community House sued the City, its mayor and City Council members, and two high-level City employees, contending that these defendants had violated the First Amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion. The defendants moved for summary judgment in the trial court, and lost, and sought review with the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals found that the mayor and members of the City Council were entitled to absolute legislative immunity for their actions in promoting and approving the lease. Specifically, the Court recognized that the "decisions about how to further the City's laudable goal of fighting homelessness is a prime example of the need to city council members the freedom to make important and difficult discretionary decisions without fear of being personally sued for it." The Court also found that the two City employees were entitled to qualified immunity because at the time the City approved the lease and sale, a reasonable official would not have known that such actions would violate the Establishment Clause.
The Community House decision is significant for California municipalities because it confirms both that their council members and executives cannot be held personally liable for legislative decisions, and that their employees are immune from liability for constitutional violations where they acted reasonably.