In the 1978 case of Monell v.
Department of Social Services, the Court had held that
municipalities could be sued under § 1983 only for actions taken
“pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature.” However,
the Court recognized that the phrase "official policy" provided a rough
sketch rather than a detailed map of the boundaries of municipal
liability and left important line-drawing questions unresolved.
For example, Monell provided no standards for
determining whether a particular city official was a policy maker whose
actions could subject a city to liability. Justice O’Connor’s
plurality opinion in City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik
established three important rules for answering that question:
First, the question of who has policy making
authority is a question of state law rather than federal law, and is a
question of law to be decided by the court rather than a question of
fact to be decided by a jury.
Second, the question is to be decided solely by
reference to state statutes, local ordinances, and formal acts
delegating policy making authority unless the plaintiff is able to prove
an informal practice so permanent and widespread that it qualifies
as a municipal custom.
Third, an unconstitutional action by an
official whose decisions are subject to review cannot be treated as a
final policy unless the reviewing body approves both the decision and
its unconstitutional basis.
Justice Brennan's concurring opinion, disagreed
on each of these points arguing that, while formal state and law was a
starting point, juries should decide what level of authority was
actually exercised by the deciding officials and what level of review
was actually exercised by any reviewing body. He agreed, however,
that the case should be reversed and remanded to the Court of Appeals
for further proceedings.
Although Justice O'Connor's plurality opinion
was unable to muster a fifth vote in Praprotnik
itself, her position was explicitly endorsed by a five-justice majority
a year later in Jett v. Dallas Independent School District.
Praprotnik's early career as an
architect for the City of
St. Louis seems to have given little hint that he and the City would
eventually be antagonists in the Supreme Court of the United States.
For a dozen years, he received good annual reviews, substantial
pay raises, and rapid promotions.
However, in the early 1980’s, Praprotnik's relationship with his
superiors soured. Praprotnik believed this deterioration was
the result of his successful challenge to several personnel actions and,
according to newspaper reports, his public testimony opposing the
placement of a Richard Serra sculpture in St. Louis's Gateway Mall.
(See photo above.) In 1982, he was involuntarily transferred to
what he saw as a dead end job. A year later, laid off from that
Praprotnik sued under
Section 1983, claiming, inter alia, that the transfer
and layoff constituted retaliation for his exercise of free speech
(He sued the City and several of his supervisors, but the Supreme Court
case dealt only with his claim against the City.)
After a jury verdict in
Praprotnik's favor, the City appealed claiming,
inter alia, that it could not
be held liable for retaliatory acts by Praprotnik’s supervisors.
The City argued that it was exempt from liability because those
supervisors were not authorized to make official policy for the City and
because their personnel decisions were subject to review by the Civil
Service Commission which had no retaliatory motive.
The Court of Appeals rejected both arguments and affirmed the
judgment for Praprotnik on his First Amendment claim.
The City challenged this
ruling and the United States Supreme Court ruled in its favor on March
2, 1988. The Court
remanded the case to the Court of Appeals which also ruled in the City's
favor. As a result, Praprotnik's layoff was upheld. He is
now an architect in the St. Louis area.