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Law School Case Brief

Bd. of the Cty. Comm’rs v. Brown - 520 U.S. 397, 117 S. Ct. 1382 (1997)

Rule:

42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 does not impose liability on a municipality unless deliberate action attributable to the municipality itself is the "moving force" behind the plaintiff's deprivation of federal rights.

Facts:

A passenger was injured when an unarmed Oklahoma county deputy pulled the passenger from a truck that had been stopped after a police chase. The passenger filed a Federal District Court suit, which included a claim that the county, on the basis of the county sheriff's prior decision to hire the deputy--and more specifically, on the basis of the sheriff's allegedly inadequate screening of the deputy's background--ought to be held liable under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 for the deputy's alleged use of excessive force on the passenger. Before trial, counsel for the county stipulated that the sheriff had been the policymaker for the county in regard to the sheriff's department. At trial, the sheriff's own testimony indicated that he had made only a limited screening of the deputy's background, while there was evidence that this background had included a misdemeanor conviction for assault and battery and various other misdemeanor convictions. The District Court denied two motions by the county, at the close of the passenger's case and at the close of all of the evidence, for judgment as a matter of law. Also, the District Court instructed the jury that with respect to the county's liability, the passenger had to prove that the sheriff's inadequate screening of the deputy's background was so likely to result in violations of constitutional rights that the sheriff could reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the passenger's constitutional needs. The jury, through answers to special interrogatories, concluded that the deputy had arrested the passenger with excessive force, and the county's hiring policy, in the case of the deputy as "instituted" by the sheriff as the county's policymaker, had been so inadequate as to amount to deliberate indifference to the passenger's constitutional needs. The District Court entered judgment for the passenger on the issue of the county's liability. On appeal, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit initially concluded that the jury's verdict ought to stand, and the judgment ought to be affirmed. On rehearing en banc, the Court of Appeals, in reaching the same conclusion, expressed the view that the county had properly been found liable under § 1983 on the basis of the sheriff's decision to hire the deputy. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review.

Issue:

Could the county be held liable for the injury sustained by the passenger on the sole basis of the county’s decision to hire the deputy?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that although the county could be held liable as a "person" under § 1983, it could not be held liable solely because it employed a tortfeasor. According to the Court, vicarious liability could not be imposed on the governing body solely on the basis of the employer-employee relationship. The passenger was required to identify a municipal policy or custom that caused her injuries. It was not sufficient for the passenger merely to identify conduct attributable to the county, such as the one-time decision to hire, she also had to demonstrate that through its deliberate conduct, the county was the moving force behind the injury and that municipal action was taken with the requisite degree of culpability. The Court found that the lower courts failed to test the link between the officer's background and the risk that, if hired, he would use excessive force. The mere probability that the sheriff used inadequate screening was insufficient to impose municipal liability. The Court reversed the decision and remanded the case because it found that the county could not be held liable for the sheriff's isolated decision to hire the police officer without adequate screening because respondent did not demonstrate that the decision reflected a conscious disregard that the officer would use excessive force.

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