Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Circuit gives us a wrinkle on Monell liability

There are two kinds of defendants in civil rights cases brought under Section 1983: individual defendants and municipal defendants. You sue the individual who violated your rights. You can sue the municipality if the rights violation grew out of a governmental policy or practice. We call the latter claims Monell cases, based on a Supreme Court case from 1978. The question is whether you can sue the government in a Monell claim without naming individual defendants.

The case is Askins v. City of New York, decided on August 23.Askins is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. Upon entering an apartment building, he hoisted himself out of his wheelchair and started to pull himself up a flight of stairs. Two police officers approached Askins and began to search his wheelchair and backpack. A Sergeant saw a blue rubber cap attached to Askins' catheter waste bags and thought (incorrectly) that it was a crack pipe. The police also found a kitchen knife on Askins. He was arrested for criminal possession of a controlled substance and criminal trespass in the third degree. The charges were eventually dismissed.

Askins sues for false arrest and malicious prosecution. His complaint named John Doe defendants along with one officer that Askins was able to identify. The district court dismissed the claims against these defendants on qualified immunity and statutes of limitations grounds (he did not name the defendants within the three-year limitations period). But Askins also sued the City of New York. The district court threw out that claim because he could not proceed against the individuals. The Court of Appeals (Leval, Raggi and Livingston) reinstates the case against the City.

Even if the City has a custom and policy of pursuing false arrests, the general rule is that "the City cannot be liable under Monell where Plaintiff cannot establish a violation of his constitutional rights." But while the individual defendants got out of the case, it was not on the merits. It was on procedural or technical grounds. Although one officer got qualified immunity, municipalities are not entitled to qualified immunity. Askins can still go after the City if he can show that his rights were violated and the rights violation grew out of a City policy. As Judge Leval writes,

It does not follow ... that the plaintiff must obtain a judgment against the individual tortfeasors in order to establish the liability of the municipality. It suffices to plead and prove against the municipality that municipal actors committed the tort against the plaintiff and that the tort resulted from a policy or custom of the municipality. In fact, the plaintiff need not sue the individual tortfeasors at all, but may proceed solely against the municipality.

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