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David Achtenberg

Professor & Law Foundation Scholar

UMKC School of Law

Kansas City, MO 64110-2499


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Jett v. Dallas Independent School District

491 U.S. 701 (1989)
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Jett's Legal Significance

Jett's Background Story

In the 1978 case of Monell v. Department of Social Services, the Court had held that cities and other local governments could be sued under § 1983 only for actions taken “pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature” and would not be subject to respondeat superior liability.  Jett strengthened this Monell defense in two respects. 

First, a majority of the court explicitly endorsed Justice O’Connor’s plurality opinion in Praprotnik which had interpreted “official municipal policy” very narrowly, thus reducing the situations in which a city could be held liable.  (Click here for a discussion of Praprotnik.)   

Second, the Court eliminated a strategy that had permitted some plaintiffs to avoid the Monell defense altogether.  Racial discrimination by local government employees violates the Constitution, but it often also seems to violate a portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which is codified in 42 U.S.C. § 1981.  Victims of such discrimination could sue the local government under Section 1983; and, in an effort to avoid the Monell defense, they often added alternative counts under Section 1981.  The Courts of Appeals split on the question of whether Section 1981 suits were subject to Monell.1  

Surprisingly, the Supreme Court’s decision in Jett bypassed this conflict.  Instead, the Court simply eliminated Section 1981 entirely as a vehicle for suing cities and other local governments.  The Court held that, for such cases, Section 1983 had effectively superseded Section 1981, and that Section 1983 was the exclusive Reconstruction Era Civil Rights Act remedy for racial discrimination by public entities.2 

Two years later, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1991 which legislatively overturned the result in several pro-defendant civil rights decisions handed down in the Supreme Court’s 1988-89 term.  However, Congress effectively left Jett intact and it appears to remain good law.3  

Norman Jett was an extremely successful high school football coach and athletic director at South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas, Texas.  As a head coach, he had a thirteen-year combined record of 103-31-5 and frequently won district championships.  Approximately 200 of his players received college scholarships and eighteen became professionals.  Jett, who was white, seemed to have successfully navigated the court ordered desegregation of South Oak Cliff, which became predominantly black about the time he was promoted from assistant to head coach.   He received high praise from former players for his ability to relate across the color line and his willingness to go out of his way to help them. 

But principals and football coaches do not always get along.  In 1975, five years after Jett became head coach at South Oak, Dr. Frederick Todd became principal of South Oak Cliff.  Coach Jett and Principal Todd clashed repeatedly over the years.  In the Spring of 1983, Todd recommended that that Jett be removed as head coach.  Jett was reassigned to several non-coaching jobs and, when the district transferred him to a position in its security department, he sued Todd and the district under both 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1981.

As is often the case, Principal Todd and Coach Jett each blamed the other.  Todd criticized Jett for comments he made about his players' ability to meet new NCAA eligibility standards and for a bizarre incident after the final playoff game of Jett's last season.4  Jett claimed (and the jury agreed) that his removal was racially motivated.5  

The jury found in favor of Jett and awarded him $850,000 (reduced by the trial judge to  $450,000) against the district with Principal Todd being jointly and severally liable for $50,000 of the damage.6  The Court of Appeals affirmed the finding of racial discrimination, but reversed and remanded on other grounds.  The Supreme Court reversed the Section 1981 judgment  and remanded the Section 1983 judgment to  the Court of Appeals which found insufficient evidence that Jett's demotion was the result of official district policy.  As a result, Jett recovered nothing from the district.  

Norman Jett never coached high school football again and eventually became a builder.  He died in 2003.  In his final year at South Oak Cliff, the team was 10-2.  The school would not win ten games again for fifteen years.