In the 1978 case of
Monell v. Department of Social Services, the Court
had held that municipalities would not have respondeat superior
liability when sued under § 1983.
They would be liable only for actions taken
by employees “pursuant to official
municipal policy of some nature.”
However, the Court recognized that the phrase
"official policy" was ambiguous and left important line-drawing
Oklahoma City v. Tuttle was the Court’s
first attempt to answer some of these questions.
plaintiff alleged that the city was liable, not
because of any formal policy, but rather because its training of police
officers was grossly negligent. Plaintiff argued that she had proved
inadequate training in two ways: by showing that the officer’s
conduct was so egregious that it could only have resulted from
inadequate training and by presenting expert testimony about particular
deficiencies in the city’s training regimen. However, the trial
court’s jury instructions told the jury that, even if it disbelieved the
expert’s testimony, it could find inadequate training based solely on
the conduct of the officer.
As a result, the Court faced three
important questions: Can inadequate training ever be a
policy that makes a city liable under
§ 1983? If so, how inadequate does the training have to be before
the city will be liable? Finally, can inadequate training be
inferred from a single, particularly egregious act by a single police
The Court avoided the first two
questions by focusing on the third.
Seven justices agreed that even outrageous
misconduct by an officer on a single occasion did not. by itself,
justify a finding of inadequate training since the misconduct could have
resulted from other factors, e.g., an officer’s unbalanced mental state.
As a result, it sent the case back to the trial court for a retrial with
the two remaining issues unresolved. Four years later, in
City of Canton v. Harris, the Court would hold
that municipalities could be liable for inadequate training, but only if
the training showed deliberate indifference to citizens’ constitutional
One other aspect of Tuttle
is worth noting. Justice Stevens wrote a dissent in which he
argued that Monell itself was wrong to reject
municipal respondeat superior liability.
The story of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle begins with the October 4, 1980
shooting death of William Adam Tuttle.1
Certain facts about the shooting were
not disputed. On October 4, 1980, Officer
Julian Rotramel responded to a report of an armed robbery in
progress at the We’ll Do Club, a tavern in Oklahoma City.
He entered the building and saw that no armed robbery was taking place
and was told by the bartender that there had been no such robbery.
However, Tuttle approached Rotramel who recognized that he fit the
"robber’s" description, and Rotramel ordered him to remain in the bar.
When Tuttle subsequently disobeyed that order and left the building,
Officer Rotramel fatally shot him.
Beyond these basic facts, the parties
sharply disagreed about what happened and the reasons for the shooting.
Officer Rotramel claimed that shot Tuttle because of a reasonable,
belief that Tuttle was reaching for a gun and was
about to shoot him.3
The plaintiff, on the other
hand, portrayed the shooting as an unjustified shooting by an
Tuttle’s widow sued both Officer Rotramel and
Oklahoma City and the jury handed down an oddly split verdict. It
found for Officer Rotramel (apparently on the basis that he was
therefore to qualified immunity), but found against the City and awarded
Ms. Tuttle $1,500,000 damages (apparently on the basis that the City’s
training of police officers was grossly negligent). The Court of
Appeals affirmed both aspects of the verdict.
Supreme Court, the city successfully challenged the trial court’s
instructions on inadequate training, and the case was sent back to the
trial court for a new trial with proper instructions. The city
prevailed on retrial, and Ms. Tuttle was awarded nothing.
Officer Rotramel was cleared of wrongdoing by the Oklahoma City Police
Department Firearms Review Board, but he left the force the next year. He is now