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David Achtenberg

Professor & Law Foundation Scholar

UMKC School of Law

Kansas City, MO 64110-2499


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Monell v. Department of Social Services

436 U.S. 658 (1978)
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Monell’s Legal Significance

Monell’s Background Story

In the 1961 case of Monroe v. Pape, the Supreme Court had held that cities and other governmental bodies could never be sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 since they were not "persons" within the meaning of the statute.  Victims of constitutional violations could sue individual wrongdoers but not the municipalities that were responsible for the wrongdoers’ actions. 

Monell overruled Monroe and held that cities were persons and could be sued under § 1983.  At the same time, the Court held that cities could not be sued on a respondeat superior basis, i.e., just because the wrongdoer was a city employee.  Instead, the Court held that cities would be responsible only if the city employees’ actions implemented or executed "official municipal policy."

The Monell court recognized that it had provided more of a "sketch" than a map of "the full contours of municipal liability under § 1983," and that its decision left important issues unresolved:  What was meant by the phrase "official municipal policy"?  What city officials could make such policy?  Should cities be granted immunity for good faith actions that did not violate clearly established constitutional rights?  These questions were left for subsequent cases. 

In the 1970’s, New York City policy required pregnant employees to take unpaid leaves of absence before such leaves were medically necessary. Jane Monell sued to force the school system to revoke its maternity leave policy and to provide back pay to the  affected female employees.

While the lawsuit was pending, the city revoked its unconstitutional maternity leave policy.  However, it  took the position that, even if the policy was unconstitutional, the city could not be required to pay back pay since it was not a "person" and could not be sued under § 1983. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeal agreed with the Board. 

Ms. Monell (represented by her husband, Oscar Chase) continued her challenge in the United States Supreme Court which ruled in her favor on June 6, 1978.  However, it was more than three years before she and the other teachers finally received the back pay they were due. 

Pictured are Jane Monell, Oscar Chase and (upper right) Arlo whose not very impending birth led to the lawsuit.