held that cities—as
opposed to their officials or employees—could
not claim any form of immunity defense when sued for monetary relief
§ 1983. In doing so, the Court resolved an important question
that the Court had expressly left open in Monell.
Beginning in 1951,
the Supreme Court had issued a series of opinions holding that state and
local officials could assert either absolute or qualified immunity.
Absolute immunity protected some officials (e.g., legislators, judges,
and prosecutors) regardless of their motives and regardless of
how clearly their actions violated the plaintiff’s rights.
Qualified immunity provided more limited protection to most other
officials and employees, immunizing them only if they acted in
subjective good faith and only if they did not violate the victim’s
clearly established constitutional rights. (In 1982, this
qualified immunity standard was modified by eliminating the subjective
component.) The question of whether any immunity
defenses would be available to cities themselves did not arise since,
until Monell, cities were not subject to
§ 1983 at all.
itself left the issue open, stating only that cities could not be
Justice Brennan’s opinion in Owen seemed to
promise that every victim of a constitutional wrong could expect full
compensatory relief—either from the officials who caused the harm or, if
the officials were immune, from the city that employed them.
But that promise was undermined by subsequent cases that narrowed the
scope of municipal liability under Monell and
broadened the situations in which individual officials would be immune.
Nonetheless, Owen continues to make cities
inviting targets for victims of constitutional violations that result
from official municipal policy.
D. Owen seemed an unlikely plaintiff for a path breaking civil rights
case. He had served thirty years as a Kansas City police officer
and five as the Chief of Police of Independence, Missouri. However, in
1972, Owen was fired amidst allegations that tarnished his
Owen’s firing followed a city council meeting during which Councilman
Paul Roberts read a statement impugning Owen’s honesty and integrity.
As part of this statement, Councilman Roberts moved that the matter be
turned over to the prosecutor and that the City Manager take appropriate
personnel actions. The Council passed the motion; and, the
following day, the City Manager fired Chief Owen. Owen’s request for
a post-termination hearing was denied.
Owen sued under
§ 1983 for deprivation of due process. After
a complicated set of proceedings,
the Court of Appeals held that the City had violated Owen’s
rights by failing to give him a chance to defend his actions at a "name
clearing hearing." Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals denied
Owen any relief, holding that the City was entitled to "good faith
immunity" since the right to such a hearing was not clearly
established at the time of Owen’s firing.
challenged this immunity ruling
and the United States Supreme Court ruled in his favor on April 16,
1980. The case was settled two months later, and the City of
Independence, in addition to a substantial monetary payment, issued an official proclamation honoring Owen for his
service and conferring on him the permanent rank of Colonel and the
title of "Chief of Police Emeritus." A copy of that proclamation