Inside the Supreme Court

Petition to Decision

Papers of Supreme Court Justices on Civil Rights Cases

David Achtenberg

Professor & Law Foundation Scholar

UMKC School of Law

Kansas City, MO 64110-2499

816-235-2382

AchtenbergD@umkc.edu

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Case Selection Page
Comprehensive Case Files
Click case names below to access case files

Monell v. Department of Social Services
(Cities can be sued, but only for official policy.)

New: Potter Stewart and Byron White Papers Added

The Court overrules previous precedent to hold that cities and other local governments can be sued for violations of civil rights.  However, the Court states that they cannot be sued on a respondeat superior basis, i.e., they cannot be sued just because the wrongdoer was a city employee.  Instead, local governments can be sued only if the wrongdoer was executing or implementing "official municipal policy."   The Court leaves the definition of "official policy" for future cases. 

     Owen v. City of Independence    
(Cities cannot claim qualified immunity.)
New: Potter Stewart and Byron White Papers Added

The Court holds that cities, unlike individual defendants, cannot assert qualified immunity when sued for violations of constitutional rights.  As a result, cities can be liable for compensatory damages even if the violation was committed in good faith and even if reasonable city employees would not have realized that their actions violated the constitution.   (Of course, under Monell, the city will not be liable unless the violation was the result of city policy.)

 City of Newport v. Fact Concerts
 
(Cities cannot be sued for punitive damages.)

The Court holds that cities, unlike individual defendants, cannot be sued for punitive damages even if the constitutional violation was inflicted pursuant to official city policy.   This immunity applies even if the cities actions were motivated by ill will or malice and even if they violated clearly-established constitutional rights.  As a result, a victim of egregious constitutional violations may seek punitive damages from individual wrongdoers, but not from the local governments that employed them. 

Oklahoma City v. Tuttle
(A single act, by itself, is not enough evidence to prove city liable under inadequate training theory.)
New: Byron White Papers Added

The Court holds that city employee’s single constitutional violation—regardless of how egregious—is not enough to prove that the city failed to adequately train the employee.  The Court leaves open the question of whether a city’s inadequate training of its employee can ever be the basis for holding the city liable for the employee’s violation.  
Justice Stevens files an extensive dissent arguing that Monell was wrong to exempt cities from respondeat superior liability.

Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati
(A city can be sued for its official’s response to a particular situation
even if that response was not intended to control future situations.)

New: Byron White Papers Added

The Court holds that an appropriate city official’s choice of a course of action in response to a particular situation can constitute official policy and can make the city liable under Monell.  The official’s decision can constitute policy even if that decision was tailored to the particular situation and was not intended to provide a controlling rule for dealing with similar situations in the future. 

City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik    
(City officials will ordinarily be found to be municipal policymakers
only if they are given that authority by written state or local law and
only if their actions are not subject to review by other officials.)
Entirely New Case File

The Court sharply limits the officials who should be deemed municipal policymakers for purposes of Monell.   Justice O'Connor's four-justice plurality opinion holds that the question of whether an official is a policy maker is a question law to be decided by the judge rather than a question of fact to be decided by the jury.  It further holds that the question should be answered, except in egregious situations, solely be reference to state laws, local ordinances, governing regulations, and (in appropriate circumstances) longstanding custom.  Finally, it holds that an officials actions cannot be deemed official municipal policy if the action can be reviewed by other city officials. 

City of Canton v. Harris
(Cities can be sued for failure to train, but only if the failure to train demonstrates deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom city officials come into contact.)
Entirely New Case File

The Court holds that failure to train can provide a basis for municipal liability.  However, it restricts such liability to cases in which plaintiffs can establish that the failure to train manifests the city’s deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the relevant city employees come into contact.  To prevail, plaintiffs must prove that the need for training was so obvious, and the lack of training so likely to lead to constitutional violations, that city policymakers can be said to have been aware of the need and to have consciously disregarded it

Will v. Michigan Department of State Police
(States cannot be sued under §1983 even in state courts.)

The Court holds that states themselves, unlike cities and other local government entities, were never intended to be suable “persons” under §1983.  As a result, states cannot be sued under the statute even if the suit is brought in state court and even if the state has waived its immunity to such suits.

Jett v. Dallas Independent School District
(Section 1983 supersedes and displaces 42 U.S.C. §1981 for suits against local governments alleging racial discrimination.  Court majority endorses Praprotnik plurality's narrow interpretation of city policy.)
Entirely New Case File

The Court rejects efforts by plaintiffs to sue cities under 42 U.S.C § 1981—and thus avoid Monell's limitations on municipal liability—by holding that cimplicitly superseded and displaced it.  The Court also explicitly endorses the Praprotnik plurality opinion's restrictive interpretation of municipal policy.   

Collins v. City of Harker Heights
(City employees can sue their employer for violations of their constitutional rights  even if the city violated those rights when acting in its capacity as the plaintiffs' employer.  However, city employees have no constitutional right to a safe workplace.)
Entirely New Case File

The Court holds that a city can be held liable under § 1983 for constitutional violations committed in its capacity as employer and rejects the so-called "abuse of governmental authority" requirement.  However, the Court also holds that municipal employees do not have a constitutional right to a safe workplace.  Even municipal deliberate indifference to employees' safety does not convert municipal worker compensation cases into constitutional violations. 


Miscellaneous and Non-Comprehensive Files
Click below to access non-case-specific files or non-comprehensive case files 

In addition to files relating to particular cases, Justice Powell maintained a number of files relating to the civil rights acts in general and § 1983 in particular.  For example, he maintained a "Civil Rights Act Notebook" and files on topics such as "Section 1983--History and Interpretation." Some of the documents in these files relate to particular cases and presumably appear in Powell's files on those cases.  However, they are presented here as they appear in various files that are not tied to a particular case.  Unlike the digital case files, these digital miscellaneous files are not complete copies.  I have selected documents that deal with § 1983 and related issues and omitted ones that do not. 

Burrell v. McCray
(Justice Powell's Files OnlyNot a Comprehensive Case File)

Burrell is not sufficiently significant to merit full case file treatment.  It raised the issue of whether a prisoner claiming that his constitutional rights had been violated, should be required to exhaust his administrative remedies before suing under § 1983.  However, the Court never reached that issue—instead it dismissed certiorari as improvidently granted, thus deciding not to decide it.  I have posted a complete set of Justice Powell’s files relating to the case because they provide important insight into his thinking about § 1983—particularly his desire to contract its scope and to overrule Monroe on the color of law issue.  See, e.g., his July 31, 1975 memo “Limitations on § 1983” or his April 27, 1976 memo in which he indicates he would vote to overrule Monroe.