Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Municpal liability: it ain't easy, but it's not impossible

Civil rights lawsuits brought under Section 1983 usually proceed against individual defendants. You can sue the municipality, but under the rules it's hard to hold the county or a town responsible for the unlawful acts of its employees. The courts have set up rules which almost discourage plaintiffs from proving municipal liability. But the courts do surprise us with a little municipal liability from time to time.

The case is Okin v. Cornwall-on-Hudson, decided on August 18. I wrote about Okin here for its holding on the rights of domestic violence victims who sue the police. I also wrote about Okin here for its clarification of the rules governing qualified immunity. The Okin ruling is chock full of interesting holdings on Section 1983 liability. Here are some more.

If you want to hold a municipality liable for a civil rights violation under Section 1983, you have to show the town or village had a custom or practice which caused the plaintiff harm. We call that Monell liability, named after a Supreme Court ruling from 1978. The Okin ruling will be remembered mostly for its holding that the police may be liable for its explicit or implicit endorsement of private violence against the plaintiff. This represents an exception to the general rule that the police are not required protect individuals from private violence. Tucked into the opinion, however, are two interesting holdings on municipal liability, however.

First, the Court of Appeals finds that a jury may agree that the municipality had a custom whereby it acquiesced in unconstitutional conduct by its officers. As Judge Pooler points out, "the record shows more than a dozen contacts between Okin and the Village, that involved a number of officers, including high-ranking officials ..., and that recurrently concerned complaints of domestic violence. These incidents suggest a consistent pattern of failing to adequately respond to Okin's complaints, to implement the New York mandatory arrest statute, to interview the alleged abuser, or to file domestic incident reports, a pattern which may have encouraged further violence." What strikes me about this holding is the Court of Appeals is finding a municipal custom as proven through its treatment of one person, as opposed a municipal custom as proven through its repeated acts or omissions as to many people. Few cases go this far, but Okin does.

Second, the Court of Appeals finds potential municipal liability based on the "failure to train" theory. The failure to adequately train public employees may impose liability against the town or village (or city) if the inadequate training "reflects deliberate indifference to ... constitutional rights." Okin meets that test. The Second Circuit finds that the municipality had lousy training in responding to domestic violence episodes. Some of the officers could not testify with specificity any details about their training. More importantly, "the repeated failure of high-ranking officers to properly respond to domestic violence complaints, when those same officers were responsible for teaching subordinates how to respond to domestic violence, suggests a fundamental flaw in the training program -- placing training responsibility in the hands of those who may themselves not understand the problem or the appropriate response." The Second Circuit seems to be breaking some ground here, as the court does not cite any cases for this holding, probably because the facts are so unusual. Sometimes bad facts make good law ... for plaintiffs.

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