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 St. Louis v. Praprotnik

485 U.S. 112 (1987)
The Archive
The Justice's Papers in Archive Order
The Timeline
Chronology with Links to Papers
Researcher Information
Materials for Further Research


Praprotnik's Legal Significance

Praprotnik's Background Story

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.

James 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 job.  

Praprotnik sued under Section 1983, claiming, inter alia, that the transfer and layoff  constituted retaliation for his exercise of free speech rights.  (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.