Law & Courts

Court Strengthens Protections for Districts From Civil Rights Suits

By Mark Walsh — May 07, 1997 3 min read


A divided U.S. Supreme Court last week gave school districts and other local governments stronger protection against lawsuits alleging that their employees committed civil rights violations.

In a case involving alleged police brutality by an Oklahoma sheriff’s deputy, the high court placed new limits on a Reconstruction-era civil rights law that is often cited by plaintiffs who sue districts in federal court.

The court ruled 5-4 on April 28 in Board of County Commissioners of Bryan County v. Brown (Case No. 95-1100) that local governments cannot be held liable for civil rights violations of their employees merely because in a single hiring decision they failed to adequately consider an employee’s checkered background.

The Oklahoma case was brought by a woman whose knees were seriously injured when she was thrown to the ground by a sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop. A federal court found Bryan County, Okla., partially liable for a violation of the woman’s civil rights because the local sheriff had hired the deputy despite knowing about the man’s misdemeanor-arrest record for assault and battery.

The woman won more than $800,000 in damages and lawyer’s fees from the deputy and the county, an award that was largely upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

The woman’s lawsuit was brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which allows suits for damages when government authority is used to deny a person’s federal constitutional or statutory rights.

The statute, usually referred to as Section 1983 for its place in the federal code, is most often cited in police-brutality cases. But it has increasingly been the basis for lawsuits seeking to hold districts liable for actions by teachers and other employees, such as sexual abuse or failure to protect children from dangers in school.

‘Deliberate Indifference’

In a 1978 decision, Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, the Supreme Court removed local governments’ complete immunity from suits under Section 1983.

The court ruled that cities, counties, and school boards could not be held liable merely because they employed someone who violated a person’s civil rights. But local governments could be held liable if the deprivation of rights could be tied to an official policy or custom of the government.

Thus, many plaintiffs who sue districts under Section 1983 seek to establish that a district policy or custom led to a rights violation. Most such suits already face an uphill battle in court, but the Supreme Court’s decision last week should bolster districts’ defenses, legal experts said.

“From the employers’ standpoint, it seems the court does not want to make every hiring decision a constitutional issue,” said David R. Friedman, a Madison, Wis., lawyer who represents school boards and has written about district liability under Section 1983.

Writing for the high court’s majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said there must be a strong connection between a local government’s hiring decision and the possibility that the employee will commit constitutional violations.

The sheriff’s inadequate scrutiny of the deputy’s criminal record does not meet the court’s test that a local government show “deliberate indifference” to the possibility of constitutional violations, she said.

“Congress did not intend municipalities to be held liable [under Section 1983] unless deliberate action attributable to the municipality directly caused a violation of federal rights,” Justice O’Connor wrote. Her opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer dissented.

Justice Breyer, in a dissent joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, said the high court’s rulings on Section 1983 are confusing, and he called for a reconsideration of the 1978 Monell decision.

The “complexity” of rulings about Section 1983 “makes it difficult for municipalities to predict just when they will be held liable based upon policy or custom,” Justice Breyer said.

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