Malfeasance:  The commission of an act that is unequivocally illegal or completely wrongful.

Malfeasance is a comprehensive term used in both civil and criminal  law to describe any act that is wrongful. It is not a distinct crime or tort, but may be used generally to describe any act that is criminal or that is wrongful and gives rise to, or somehow contributes to, the injury of another person. Malfeasance is an affirmative act that is illegal or wrongful.  In tort law it is distinct from misfeasance, which is an act that is not illegal but is improperly performed.  It is also distinct from nonfeasance, which is a failure to act that results in injury.

The distinctions between malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance have little effect on tort law. Whether a claim of injury is for one or the other, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed a duty of care, that the duty was breached in some way, and that the breach caused injury to the plaintiff.

I love the word malfeasance.  It is used in two of my favorite movies:  “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Fargo.”  I’m sure it is used in other movies, but I have yet to hear it.  When was the last time you heard of someone being indicted for malfeasance?  Probably never.  It has such a ring to it.  You know it’s not a good thing, with the “mal” prefix meaning “evil.”  But it also conjures up antiquated notions of wrongdoing and impropriety.  And yet, while we don’t really know of anyone committing malfeasance, we know that if they are accused of it that it’s not a good thing at all. 

All courts agree that malfeasance has to do with wrongful doing, but defining wrongful doing and proving malicious intent are difficult tasks.  In addition, the act must be proven to have interfered with the perpetrators’ official duties. Determining whether or not the act interfered with the duties is also difficult.  In addition, some courts believe malfeasance also applies to an act that interferes with the official duties of other public officials.

Due to disagreement over the exact meaning of malfeasance, the definitions of malfeasance and misfeasance sometimes overlap.  As a result, malfeasance can also sometimes refer to negligent acts that were committed out of ignorance and not just to those that were committed intentionally. A true example of malfeasance by its original definition would be when a public official hires her niece to a particular position and pays her more than the position warrants or allows her to falsify her time cards.  Misfeasance, on the other hand, would apply to the public official who hires her niece without realizing that it is against the law to hire a relative for the position.

I’m sure that some of life’s finer moments may be the result of a little malfeasance, but I sure as hell am not going to rat out anyone, especially myself.  If you’ve committed malfeasance or know of a movie where it’s been spoken about, let me know.  Your confession is safe with me.

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