In 1973, a U.S. Forest Service ranger in Idaho ordered a work crew to remove three collapsed bus bodies and several barrels, refrigerators and stoves from the dry creek bed where they had been abandoned.
Two years later, the ranger was sued for $148,000 by a miner who claimed his constitutional right to due process had been violated because the property had been destroyed without his consent.
A jury ruled in the miner's favor but reduced the claim to $1,000, which the ranger, Robert C. Lehman, was ordered to pay along with all court costs.
The Reagan administration claims that the Lehman case illustrates how vulnerable federal employes have become since the Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that they can be held personally responsible for violating an individual's constitutional rights.
Approximately 12,400 so-called "Bivens suits," named after the court's controversial decision in Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have been filed against federal employes since 1971.
Of the approximately 10,000 cases that have been resolved, 16 have resulted in initial judgments against employes.
The suits "are often prompted by reasons other than money damages," according to J. Paul McGrath, head of the Justice Department's Civil Division. He said many of them are filed to harass or intimidate employes, especially Internal Revenue Service agents.
McGrath contended that, although most "Bivens suits" are "frivolous" and never come to trial, they are expensive and time-consuming. The government usually is required to hire an outside attorney to defend the employe while it conducts an internal probe of the charges.
"Conscientious federal employes are traumatized . . . into inaction . . . by the threat or reality of a suit," McGrath testified.
Nearly everyone agrees that the Federal Tort Claims Act must be amended to protect federal workers. Although a slew of bills has been introduced since the mid-1970s, none has become law.
A major reason is that Congress has been unable to agree on a method that will free federal employes from lawsuits yet maintain some way to punish misconduct.
That dilemma can be seen in the two bills before Congress. Both would force citizens to sue the government rather than individuals.
But the House bill, whose supporters include the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and Public Citizen, would allow jury trials and special damages of up to $100,000 for malicious violation of constitutional rights by federal employes.
Backers of the House bill claim that the threat of a $100,000 fine would make the government supervise its employes closely and would discipline those who intentionally violate the law.
The administration, whose views are embodied in the Senate bill, wants "Bivens" cases decided by federal judges and claims an extra fine is unnecessary.
The biggest disagreement, however, is over the "good-faith defense."
When it issued the "Bivens" decision, the court said that a jury should take a federal worker's conduct into consideration before assessing damages. Thus, an employe can now claim to have acted in "good faith" even if it has been determined that the action was improper.
The Senate version would allow the government to cite the good-faith defense; the House version would not.
If Congress eliminates that defense, it will be declaring that "considerations of reasonableness are irrelevant to the conduct of government agents," McGrath said. "Taxpayers would pay damages in cases when courts determined with hindsight that technical violations had occurred even though the conduct of the employe was properly motivated and eminently reasonable."
ACLU attorney Jerry J. Berman counters that the good-faith defense was created solely to "insulate" federal employes.
"The classic example . . . is a situation where drug enforcement agents, with all the good faith in the world, break down the door to your house . . . ," said Charles F.C. Ruff, a Washington lawyer who was member of a Carter administration team that drafted an unsuccessful "Bivens" proposal. "The agents arrest the mother and father. And their kids see them scooped off and dragged to jail. Later, the government discovers that it arrested the wrong people.
"Who is going to pay for the broken door, hospital bills or other damages that family suffered?" Ruff asked. "It all depends upon your focus. If you focus on the injuries . . . like the House bill does, then you say someone has to be responsible and pay.
"But if you focus on how to best protect the government from damages, you support the Senate bill because it would allow the government to say, 'Hey look, we're sorry, but we acted in good faith and, therefore, aren't responsible.' "
Both sides have refused to budge, raising doubts that either proposal will succeed.
Meanwhile, Lehman and other federal workers contend that they are being unfairly exposed to "personal financial ruin" even though few juries have assessed large penalties against federal workers.
In Lehman's case, the government appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court. The case was remanded to a lower court, where a new trial is pending.
Lehman said he doesn't believe he did anything wrong. "I'll tell you one thing, though," he said. "I don't order an abandoned car towed without thinking twice about it now."