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Municipal Liability Under Section 1983: The Importance of State Law

Federalism & Separation of Powers Practice Group Newsletter - Volume 1, Issue 3, Fall 1997
By Daniel W. Nelson
December 01, 1997

During the October 1996 term, the Supreme Court handed down two cases involving municipal liability under 42 U.S.C. §1983, McMillian v. Monroe County, Alabama, 117 S. Ct. 1734 (1997), and Board of the County Comm'rs v. Brown, 117 S. Ct. 1382 (1997). By a narrow majority, the Court in these cases emphasized the importance of State law in determining the reach of § 1983, thereby preserving the States' role in organizing their political subdivisions within a larger Federal system.

In each case, a county was sued for damages under Section 1983 by individuals who claimed that they suffered injury at the hands of the county sheriff. The Supreme Court in both cases reiterated the role of the States in the formulation of municipal policies, and found that the municipality was not liable for damages under Section 1983. Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of a 5-4 Court in McMillian (Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer dissented); Justice O'Connor delivered the opinion of the same 5-4 Court in Brown.

Under Monell v. Department of Social Serv., 436 U.S. 658 (1978), a municipal government can be held liable under Section 1983 if a plaintiff can demonstrate that a deprivation of a federal right occurred as a result of a "policy" of the local government's legislative body or of those local officials whose acts may fairly be said to be those of the municipality. Municipalities, however, cannot be held liable under Section 1983 for constitutional torts on a theory of respondeat superior. In other words, municipalities are not liable for the actions of their employees simply as a result of employment status: an employee must be acting pursuant to a municipal "policy." To establish a municipal "policy," a plaintiff must prove that the municipal action was (i) taken with the requisite degree of culpability and (ii) causally linked to the deprivation of a federal right. This standard has produced, in the words of Justice Breyer, "a highly complex body of interpretive law." Brown, 117 S. Ct. at 1401 (Breyer, J. dissenting).

Of the two cases decided this past term, McMillian may have the larger impact -- despite claims from the dissent that the decision does little to alter Section 1983 jurisprudence -- because it emphasized the importance of applicable state law in determining whether a county sheriff is a municipal "policymaker" in any given situation. McMillian filed a lawsuit under Section 1983 against, among others, Monroe County, Alabama. McMillian's suit alleged injury flowing from having spent six years on death row before his capital murder conviction was reversed. McMillian alleged that the Monroe County sheriff and others in the sheriff's office had acted as county officials when the evidence was suppressed, and that as a result the county was liable under Section 1983. The county did not dispute that the sheriff was a "policymaker" for purposes of Section 1983, but contended that the sheriff was a policymaker for the State, not Monroe County. The district court, which was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit, agreed with the county and dismissed McMillian's lawsuit against the county on the ground that the sheriff was a State, not a county, policymaker when acting in a law enforcement capacity.

The Supreme Court affirmed, and made clear that its holding was driven by two factors: first, its decision turned on an analysis of state law; and second, its inquiry was limited to the circumstances presented by the sheriff's actions at issue in the case (actions taken in a law enforcement capacity). In assessing whether the sheriff was a state or county "policymaker," the Court focused its analysis on how Alabama county sheriffs were intended to function under pertinent Alabama legal authorities, particularly the Alabama constitution. The Court relied heavily on the fact that the Alabama Supreme Court had held that under the Alabama constitution, claims brought against a county sheriff based on official acts constitute suits against the State, not against the sheriff's county.

The Supreme Court specifically rejected an argument that finding Alabama county sheriffs to be state officials would conflict with the decisions of several Federal Courts of Appeals that had concluded that county sheriffs were county officials. That argument was characterized by the majority as "ignor[ing] our Nation's federal nature." McMillian, 117 S. Ct. at 1741. The Court also noted that there would be no inconsistency in decisions declaring sheriffs to be county officials in one State, and not in another -- perhaps inviting a reconsideration in those circuits that have uniformly held sheriffs to be county policymakers.

Brown involved a suit under Section 1983 seeking compensation against, among others, a municipality for injuries allegedly incurred when plaintiff Brown was forcibly removed from a vehicle by a sheriff's deputy of Bryan County, Oklahoma. Brown claimed that the county was liable because the county sheriff (the uncle of the deputy's father) had failed adequately to review the deputy's background, which included various misdemeanor convictions, before hiring him.

In Brown, the issue of whether the sheriff was a county "policymaker" was not contested. Brown addressed the standard of culpability and causation necessary to establish that a federal right was deprived by a municipal "policy." The municipal action at issue in Brown was a single act, the decision to hire a particular individual as a sheriff's deputy -- an action that was neither itself a violation of federal law nor a municipal directive that produced a denial of federal rights. The county argued that the sheriff's single hiring decision could not give rise to Section 1983 municipal liability. The district court and the Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding that a single hiring decision by the county sheriff could be a "policy" under Monell.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the single hiring decision in Brown was not a sufficient "moving force" behind the alleged injury to constitute an actionable municipal "policy" for Section 1983 liability. The Court was driven by its concern that "[w]here a court fails to adhere to rigorous requirements of culpability and causation, municipal liability collapses into respondeat superior liability." Brown, 117 S. Ct. at 1394.

The Court made clear, however, that the municipal action at issue in Brown did not itself deprive any federal rights. The Court reiterated a high standard of culpability and causation for liability in such cases -- a standard of "deliberate indifference" to a risk that a violation of a federal right will follow from the municipal decision. For "deliberate indifference" to exist, the causal connection between the deprivation of a federal right and the municipal decision must be such that the deprivation was a "plainly obvious consequence" of the decision. Id. at 1392. Brown also squarely called into question whether a single municipal act that does not itself deprive a federal right could ever constitute "deliberate indifference." In doing so, the Court qualified Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989), which left open the possibility that evidence of a single violation of federal rights could result in municipal liability under Section 1983, as a decision hypothesizing about an instance where the violation of a federal right is a highly predictable consequence of the municipal action.

The decisions in both McMillian and Brown limit the scope of Section 1983 liability and emphasize the importance of State law in detering the significance of municipal activity. McMillian rejected the argument that a uniform national characterization of sheriffs would make Section 1983 cases easier to decide, instead recognizing the States' "wide authority to set up their state and local governments as they wish." McMillian, 117 S. Ct. at 1741. Similarly, in scrutinizing whether a single municipal hiring decision could constitute a "policy," Brown drew on the Congressional intent that municipalities would not be held liable under Section 1983 unless deliberate action attributable to the municipality directly caused a deprivation of federal rights. Indeed, Brown cautioned that "[a] failure to apply stringent culpability and causation requirements raises serious federalism concerns, in that it risks constitutionalizing particular hiring requirements that States have themselves elected not to impose." Brown, 117 S. Ct. at 1394.

Thus, McMillian and Brown can be read as consistent with other recent Supreme Court decisions reflecting a new consideration for federalist principles.

*Daniel Nelson is an associate at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in Washington, D.C.