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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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Owen v. City of Independence

445 U.S. 622 (1980)
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Owen’s Legal Significance

Owen’s Background Story

Owen held that cities—as opposed to their officials or employeescould not claim any form of immunity defense when sued for monetary relief under § 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.  Monell itself left the issue open, stating only that cities could not be absolutely immune.

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. 

George 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 good name. 

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. 

Chief Owen 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 appears above.