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.
here for a discussion
the Court eliminated a strategy that had permitted some plaintiffs to
avoid the Monell
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. §
Victims of such discrimination could sue
the local government under Section 1983; and, in an effort to avoid the
defense, they often added alternative counts under Section
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superseded Section 1981, and that Section 1983 was the exclusive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
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
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
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
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
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.