Thank You For Submiting Feedback!
A municipality is immune from punitive damages under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983.
Respondents (an organization licensed by petitioner city to present certain musical concerts, and a promoter of the concerts) brought suit in Federal District Court against the city and city officials. Alleging, inter alia, that the city's cancellation of the license amounted to a violation of their constitutional rights under color of state law, respondents sought compensatory and punitive damages under 42 U. S. C. § 1983. Without objection, the court gave an instruction authorizing the jury to award punitive damages against each defendant, including the city. Verdicts were returned for respondents, which in addition to awarding compensatory damages also awarded punitive damages against both the individual officials and the city. The city moved for a new trial, arguing for the first time that punitive damages could not be awarded against a municipality under § 1983. Although noting that the challenge to the instruction was untimely under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 51, the District Court considered and rejected the city's substantive legal arguments on their merits. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that the city's failure to object to the charge at trial, as required by Rule 51, could not be overlooked on the theory that the charge itself was plain error. The court also expressed a belief that the challenged instruction might not have been error at all, and identified the "distinct possibility" that municipalities could be liable for punitive damages under § 1983 in the proper circumstances.
Was the city immune from punitive damages under 42 USCS 1983?
The United States Supreme Court held that (1) the Supreme Court will review the question whether a municipality may be held liable for punitive damages under 1983, even though Rule 51 would apparently foreclose the Court from doing so since the city failed to object to the District Court's jury charge as to punitive damages, where, because the District Court reached and fully adjudicated the merits, and the Court of Appeals did not disagree with that adjudication, no interests in fair and effective trial administration advanced by Rule 51 would be served if the Supreme Court refused to reach the merits itself, (2) the Supreme Court's review will not be restricted to the plain error standard--an exception to Rule 51 that is invoked on occasion by the Courts of Appeals absent timely objection in the trial court--since (a) the contours of municipal liability under 1983 are currently in a state of evolving definition and uncertainty, (b) the very novelty of the legal issue at stake counsels unconstricted review, and (c) the punitive damages question is important and appears likely to recur in 1983 litigation against municipalities, and (3) a municipality is immune from punitive damages under 1983, since (a) by the time Congress enacted what is now 1983, it was generally understood that a municipality was to be treated as a natural person subject to suit for a wide range of tortious activity, but this understanding did not extend to the award of punitive or exemplary damages, (b) nothing in the legislative history of what is now 1983 suggests that Congress intended that the doctrine of municipal immunity from punitive damages be abolished, whereas just the opposite is suggested, and (c) public policy considerations do not support exposing a municipality to punitive damages for the bad faith actions of its officials because neither the retributive purpose of 1983 nor its deterrence rationale justifies making punitive damages available against municipalities.