We previously wrote here about Section 1983 and the ratification theory of liability.
On June 21, 2019, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued it opinion in Young v. Humphreys County and affirmed the lower court’s judgment based on that theory.
The facts in Young
On September 2, 2015, Plaintiff Carl Young bought three empty houses in Humphreys County. Eight days later, he hired a local contractor to clean and renovate them.
A week after that, Mr. Charles Edwards, the County Building Inspector, posted a condemnation notice on the properties, declaring each of them unsafe and ordering “[a]ll persons . . . to keep out as long as this notice remains posted.”
Nonetheless, according to Edwards’ testimony at trial, Young’s properties actually complied with all county rules and ordinances and state law at the time he posted the notice.
Edwards testified that he would not have posted the condemnation notice except that R.D. “Dickie” Stevens – the president of the Board of Supervisors – had instructed him to do so.
On October 5, the Board met and unanimously voted to hold a hearing on November 17 for the condemnation of Young’s properties.
Young appeared at the November meeting and asked for a continuance to obtain counsel. The parties continued the hearing until December 7.
Young obtained counsel, who informed the Board a few days before the rescheduled hearing of Young’s intent to sue the Board. The Board, in turn, told Young that it would not hold the hearing and was turning the situation over to its insurance company.
The Board never conducted a condemnation hearing, and neither Stevens nor any other Board member instructed Edwards to remove the condemnation notice from Young’s property.
The notice remained in effect for over two years until the Board sent Young a letter on February 12, 2018, telling him that he could enter his properties and start repairs.
Young files suit
Young commenced as action against the County and sought damages under Section 1983 for deprivation of his property rights. He was represented by Ronnie Stutzman and this guy:
Young’s theory of liability was ratification. Specifically, he alleged that Board President Stevens unlawfully caused the condemnation notice to be posted and that the Board of Supervisors later ratified his decision by voting to proceed with condemnation.
The district court submitted the case to a jury which found in favor of Young. Final judgment in the amount of $43,261.57 was entered in his favor.
The County appeals
On appeal, the County argued that Young had failed to make out a case of ratification.
The Fifth Circuit explained that one way of establishing liability is to show that a policymaker ratified the acts of a subordinate.
“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.”
The Court concluded that there was legally sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the Board ratified Stevens’ unlawful initiation of condemnation proceedings
The County also argued that the ratification theory requires a plaintiff to also prove a separate violation of an official policy or custom, not just that the policymaker ratified a subordinate’s action.
The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument because it “misstates the ratification theory.” Showing that a policymaker ratified the actions of a subordinate is one way of making out a Section 1983 claim against a county or municipality; it is not an additional factor that must be established.
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