Thursday, December 9, 2010

Los Angeles County v. Humphries, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, & When is Municipal Liability Triggered?

Los Angeles County, California v. Humphries, Case Number 09-350, was handed down by the Supreme Court November 30th. The question before the Court is whether Monell’s “policy or custom” requirement applies only to claims for damages but not to claims for prospective relief. See, Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U. S. 658, 694.

The Humphries, respondents, were accused of child abuse in California. Their names were added to a registry, the Child Abuse Central Index created pursuant to The California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, Cal. Penal Code Ann. §11164 et seq., (Index), automatically for a period of ten years.

Here's the wrinkle. The Humphries were exonerated. California failed to have a way for the wrongfully accused to be removed from the Index. The Humphries filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983, seeking monetary damages, an injunction, and a declaration that public officials and petitioner Los Angeles County had deprived them of their constitutional rights by failing to create a mechanism through which they could contest inclusion in the Index.

The District Court for the Central District of California granted summary judgment to all of the defendants/petitioners on the ground that California had not deprived plaintiffs/respondents of a constitutionally protected “liberty” interest. The Humphries appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Ninth Circuit reversed holding that the Humphries were entitled, under the Fourteenth Amendment, with notice and a hearing. The Humphries were entitled to declaratory relief. The court also held that respondents were prevailing parties entitled to attorney’s fees, including $60,000 from the county.

Los Angeles County objected, falling back on Monell, said they were a "municipality" and therefore only liable if its “policy or custom” caused the deprivation of a plaintiff’s federal right. It was the State of California's liability, Los Angeles County was saying, not theirs.

The Ninth Circuit, said it might be the County's responsibility to create a procedure for the Humphries to contest inclusion in the Index. Since that issue is not clearly in the record on appeal the matter is remanded to the District Court to determine the County's liability under Monell. The appellate court found no reason to remand with respect to the issue of the County's liability for the award of attorney's fees. The Ninth Circuit having found, inter alia, that respondents did prevail against the county on their claim for declaratory relief because Monell did not apply to prospective relief claims.

In this case the Supreme Court held that Monell’s “policy or custom” requirement applies in §1983 cases irrespective of whether the relief sought is monetary or prospective. The case is reversed and remanded.

This is, oddly enough, another case dealing with what the law considers to be a "person". In Monroe v. Pape the Court held that municipalities were not “person[s]” under §1983 on the provision’s legislative history, particularly Congress’ rejection of the so-called Sherman amendment, which would have made municipalities liable for damages done by private persons “ riotously and tumultuously assembled. ” The Court in Monell overruled Monroe, after reexamining this legislative history in Monell. The Monell Court concluded that Congress had rejected the Sherman amendment, not because it would have imposed liability on municipalities, but because it would have imposed such liability solely based on the acts of others. The Court, overruling Monroe, held that municipalities were “persons” under §1983. As such they are amenable to suit.

The Monell Court ruled that the municipality cannot be sued because of the acts of others, but remains liable for carrying out governmental policy or custom which results in injury otherwise actionable under law.

In this case the Court rejects the bifurcation of equitable remedies from monetary damages to say when the municipality's immunity under Monell applies. The Court found the respondent's argument against Los Angeles County without merit.

Nothing in §1983 suggests that the causation requirement should change with the form of relief sought. In fact, the text suggests the opposite when it provides that a person who meets §1983’s elements “shall be liable . . . in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.”

“[L]local governing bodies . . . can be sued directly under§1983 for monetary, declaratory, or injunctive relief where, as here, the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes” a policy or custom, citing Monell.

To find the “policy or custom” requirement inapplicable in prospective relief cases would also undermine Monell’s logic. For whether an action or omission is a municipality’s “own” has to do with the nature of the action or omission, not with the nature of the relief that is later sought in court.

Breyer writes: "In sum, in Monell the Court held that “a municipality cannot be held liable” solely for the acts of others, e.g., “solely because it employs a tortfeasor.” ... But the municipality may be held liable “when execution of a government’s policy or custom . . . inflicts the injury.”

On remand the question may be whether the Humphries have a protected liberty interest in being able to remove their names from the Index.  Or should the Humphries have joined the State of California as plaintiffs?

Associate Justice Breyer wrote the opinion of the Court in which all members, other than Associate Justice Kagan, joined. Associate Justice Kagan did not participate in any part of the consideration or decision of this case.

42 U.S.C. § 1983

“Every person who, under color of any [state] statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any . . . other per-son . . . to the deprivation of any rights . . . secured by the Constitution and laws [of the United States], shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.”

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