The United State Constitution and numerous federal laws provide citizens with certain guaranteed civil rights. When those rights are violated, the injured party may be able to bring a case under Section 1983 of the United State Code.
Section 1983 is a statute that, in and of itself, does not provide any particular rights. Instead, it is a vehicle for seeking damages for the violation of rights found elsewhere in the law.
In this post, we are going to look at the situation in which an employee of a city or county violates a person’s civil rights.
In that situation, the employee can usually be held personally responsible for that violation. (There are some exceptions, particularly when the employee is a judge, prosecutor or other judicial officer.)
But what about the city or county for which they work? Can they also be held liable for what they are employee did?
The Monell decision
In the landmark case of Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), the United States Supreme Court looked at this very issue.
Under the law of most states (including Mississippi), if an employee of a private business causes injury to someone while engaged in their usual job responsibilities, the employer can also be held liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior. This simply means that the employer is legally responsible for what its employees do in the course and scope of their employment.
In Monell, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that respondeat superior could be used to make a city liable for a civil rights violation committed by one of its employees. The Court concluded that something more needed to be proved.
That something more was a policy or custom.
The Supreme Court concluded that in order to make a city liable for a constitutional deprivation carried out by one of its employees, that deprivation must have been the result of a “policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body’s officers.”
The Court also concluded that a well-established and regular custom would be sufficient, even if such a custom had not received formal approval through the body’s official decision making channels.
Thus, in Monell, the United States Supreme Court recognized two methods of establishing municipal liability – – official policy or unofficial custom.
(As we continue, please bear in mind that the rules applicable to cities in Section 1983 cases are equally applicable to counties. For simplicity, we will use the phrase “municipal liability” below.)
The final policymaker rule.
In most local governments, official policies are adopted by a board or council at a regularly held meeting. The courts have recognized, however, that others in local government can also make official policies.
For example, in Mississippi, a sheriff is the county’s chief law enforcement office. The sheriff can often set an official policy with respect to law enforcement without having to obtain approval of the County Board of Supervisors.
So, for example, a decision by the sheriff as to how to run the county jail can become a final policy of the county, even though the board of supervisors did not vote on it.
The courts have recognized, then, that “an unconstitutional governmental policy could be inferred from a single decision taken by the highest officials responsible for setting policy in that area of the government’s business.”
The ratification theory.
The most recent of the four methods of establishing municipal liability under Section 1983 is the ratification theory.
This theory was developed by the United States Supreme Court in City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 1127 (1988).
The Supreme Court begin its opinion in Praprotnik thusly: “This case calls upon us to define the proper legal standard for determining when isolated decisions by municipal officials or employees may expose the municipality itself to liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.”
Put another way, the Court was looking at constitutional violations caused by a lower-level employee when that violation did not arise out of:
-a formal policy,
-a custom, or
-a decision of a final policymaker.
The Court held that “when a subordinate’s decision is subject to review by the municipality’s authorized policymakers, they have retained the authority to measure the official’s conduct for conformance with their policies. If the authorized policymakers approve a subordinate’s decision and the basis for it, their ratification would be chargeable to the municipality because their decision is final.
If you have been the victim of a civil rights violation by city or county employees, consider all four methods of holding the local government liable for that violation.
Panter Law Firm, PLLC, 7736 Old Canton Road, Suite B, Madison, MS 39110.