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David Achtenberg

Professor & Law Foundation Scholar

UMKC School of Law

Kansas City, MO 64110-2499


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Oklahoma City v. Tuttle

471 U.S. 808 (1985)
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Tuttle’s Legal Significance

Tuttle’s Background Story

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 questions unresolved.  Oklahoma City v. Tuttle was the Court’s first attempt to answer some of these questions.

In Tuttle the 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 officer?

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 proper instructions. 

Tuttle left 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 rights. 

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, albeit erroneous,2 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 ill-trained officer.4  

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.

In the 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 an accountant.