Inside the Supreme Court

Petition to Decision

Papers of Supreme Court Justices on Civil Rights Cases

David Achtenberg

Professor & Law Foundation Scholar

UMKC School of Law

Kansas City, MO 64110-2499


Petition to Decision Home

City of Canton v. Harris

489 US 378 (1988)
The Archive
The Justice's Papers in Archive Order
The Timeline
Chronology with Links to Papers
Researcher Information
Materials for Further Research

City of Canton's Legal Significance

City of Canton's Background Story

Cases from Monell to Praprotnik raised significant obstacles to successful Section 1983 suits against cities.  To avoid those obstacles, plaintiffs increasingly framed their cases to argue that cities should be held liable because they had failed to adequately train their employees.  While Tuttle had held that an employee's constitutional violation would notóby itselfóbe enough to prove inadequate training, it left open the question of what evidence would be enough and what standard the courts should apply to inadequate training cases.

In City of Canton, the Supreme Court answered that question.  It adopted a strict "deliberate indifference" standard under which plaintiffs were required to prove that the need for additional training was obvious and that the risk of constitutional violations from lack of training was severe.  The Court stressed that, in addition to deliberate indifference, plaintiffs needed to prove that adequate training would have prevented the constitutional wrong.  Finally, an influential concurring opinion by Justice O'Connor suggested that plaintiffs would have to prove that the city had failed to train the employee about either "a clear constitutional duty implicated in recurrent situations that a particular employee is certain to face," or a constitutional duty that the city knew had previously violated by its employees.

Supreme Court opinions understandably focus on the facts relevant to the particular issue on which the Court granted reviewóin this case, the standard to be applied in failure to train cases.  Reading the Court's opinion in Canton, you would learn that Geraldine Harris was arrested and put in a paddy wagon, that she was later found on the paddy wagon floor and twice slumped to the floor at the police station, that she responded "incoherently" when asked if she needed medical attention, that she was released to her family who took her to a hospital by ambulance where she was diagnosed with "severe emotional ailments,"  and that she sued claiming, inter alia, that the city should have provided her medical care while in custody.  These facts may be enough to understand the Court's decision on failure to train liability, but they leave most readers with an unflattering and misleading impression of Ms. Harris and the events leading up to her lawsuit.

At the time of her arrest in 1978, Geraldine Harris and her family would have been seen as models of America's upwardly mobile African American middle class.  She was a fifty-two year old homemaker with a high school education. Her husband left sharecropping at age 14 and worked for Republic Steel for almost 40 years.  Together, they raised eight children, eventually sending them all to college.  One daughter was already a physician and another would become a judge in Cleveland.  Ten years earlier, Geraldine's son Ronnie "Mazel" Harris won a Gold Medal in boxing at the 1968 Olympics.  (At Geraldine's urging, Ronnie accepted his medal without joining Tommie Smith and John Carlos's Black Power Salute protest.) Geraldine was a respected member of her community and had recently been voted Canton's "Mother of the Year."  She had no history of mental or emotional illness.


On the morning of April 26, 1978,  Geraldine Harris was driving her daughter Bernadette to high school when she was stopped for speeding, an infraction that would normally lead to the issuance of a ticket.  The facts leading to Geraldine's subsequent arrest and transportation to the police station were disputed:  The officer testified (and Ms. Harris denied) that she refused to show him her driver's license and became uncontrollably upset and uncooperative.  Ms. Harris testified (and the officers denied) that the police verbally abused and physically mistreated her and acted unreasonably in other respects.  As is often the case, it is difficult to know whose version to believe: On the one hand, no felony or misdemeanor charges were ever filed against Ms. Harris.  On the other hand, although the jury awarded her a $200,000 verdict against the city, it denied her any recovery against any of the individual officers thus implicitly rejecting some of her testimony.


More than ten years after her arrest, the Supreme Court overturned her verdict against the City.  By that time, Ms. Harris was suffering from cancer and no retrial ever occurred.  She died in July of 1991.