Wednesday, October 14, 2015

When is someone sued in her individual or official capacity?

Sloppy pleading will not always result in dismissal of your case, but it could happen. The Court of Appeals may reinstate the case, but that happens a year later. In this case, the district court rejected a claim against a municipal defendant because it was not clear if plaintiff was suing that defendant in her official or personal capacity.

The case is Rodriguez v. City of Rochester, a summary order decided on September 15. For reasons that are too complicated to get into here, when you sue for relief under Section 1983 -- the federal civil rights statute that enforces the Constitution -- you can name individual defendants but must do so in their individual capacity. If you sue them in their official capacity, then that is the equivalent of suing the municipality itself. As it is easier to sue individuals for constitutional violations than municipalities, it is good practice to identify in the lawsuit the capacity in which you are suing the individual.

That did not happen in this case, which alleges that the City maintained an unlawful English-only language policy. The jury ruled in favor of all defendants, including the City, but it found against St. Aubins in finding that she impaired plaintiffs' liberty interests in his choice of language at work. The jury awarded $2,500 in compensatory damages and the same amount in punitive damages.

Plaintiffs named St. Aubin as a defendant, but it was not clear if this defendant was sued in her individual capacity, so the district court dismissed her from the case post-trial, which meant plaintiff lost the case entirely. The Court of Appeals reinstates her as a defendant because, under the totality of the circumstances, it seems clear she was sued as an individual. We know this because plaintiff named St. Aubin and the City as defendants. Plaintiffs also sought punitive damages, which you can only recover from defendants sued in their individual capacities. The Complaint also focuses on St. Aubin's conduct in enforcing the policy. And, at trial, defendants did not object when the district court charged the jury on punitive damages and told the jury that it could find against the City or St. Aubins.

What it all means is that the Court of Appeals found a way to reinstate the verdict against St. Aubins. What we learn from this case is that the Court of Appeals may save you if you did not plead the Complaint properly. But if you do it right the first time around and pay attention to what you are doing, then the case can be resolved more quickly.

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