Sometimes, an implausible
legal theory somehow gains currency in the lower courts and the Supreme
Court has to step in to set things straight. In
v. City of Harker Heights, the Court rejected not one but
two such unlikely theories—both
dealing with §1983 suits between municipal employees and their
The first was the Fifth
Circuit's odd line of cases under which a city's violation of its
employee's constitutional rights could not be remedied under
§1983 since the city was acting "in its capacity as an employer rather
than as a governing authority" and thus was not abusing governmental
power. In oral argument, Harker Heights' attorney did not
even attempt to defend this "abuse of governmental authority"
requirement, perhaps because several of the Supreme Court's best known
§1983 opinions (e.g., Monell v. Department of Social Services
and Owen v. City of Independence) had upheld suits by
government employees against their employers. The Supreme
Court quickly rejected the Fifth Circuit's position, pointing out
that an "abuse of governmental authority" requirement would immunize a
city that retaliated against employees for exercising free speech rights
or discriminated against them because of their gender.
The Court then turned to
an argument that had had gained traction among many in the plaintiffs'
theory that a municipality violated its employees' constitutional
rights if it was "deliberately indifferent" to their on-the-job safety.
While this theory drew some support from cases (like City of
Canton v. Harris) dealing with
municipal liability for failure to train and from various cases dealing
with jail and prison conditions, it ran into an insurmountable practical
obstacle: it threatened to turn routine municipal worker compensation
cases into federal constitutional disputes. The Supreme Court made
short work of this theory holding that the due process clause did not
give public employees a constitutional right to a safe workplace or to
well-trained fellow employees and supervisors.
July of 1988, Larry Michael Collins began working for the sanitation
department of the City of Harker Heights, Texas. On October
21, 1988, his supervisor told him to climb into an eighteen foot manhole
to unblock a clogged sewer line. Working in underground sewer
lines is dangerous since sewage decomposes producing methane which can
drive out oxygen. In fact, Collins' supervisor had himself
been removed from a sewer earlier that year after becoming unconscious
from lack of oxygen.
Despite this danger, Collins was sent into the
manhole without any safety devices. Shortly after entering the
sewer system, he lost consciousness and died of oxygen deprivation
shortly thereafter. He was thirty-eight years old.
Collins' widow Myra Jo Collins received worker compensation benefits but
sought further relief on the basis that the city had violated her
husband's constitutional right not to be deprived of his life. She
alleged that the City was well aware of the risk involved, had failed to
train its employees and supervisors to avoid the risk and had failed to
provide appropriate safety equipment as required by the Texas Hazard
Communications Act. She further alleged that the danger was so
apparent and this failure so egregious that it demonstrated deliberate
indifference to Collins' constitutional right to life.
The United States District Court dismissed Ms. Collins claims and the
Court of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit affirmed that dismissal. As
discussed to the left, the Supreme Court also affirmed, and Ms. Collins
recovered nothing. She died six years later at age forty-one.