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Law School Case Brief

Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati - 475 U.S. 469, 106 S. Ct. 1292 (1986)


Not every decision by municipal officers automatically subjects the municipality to 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 liability. Municipal liability attaches only where the decisionmaker possesses final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the action ordered.


Bertold Pembaur, a physician and the proprietor of a clinic in Cincinnati, Ohio, that provided medical services primarily to welfare recipients, was indicted by a grand jury for fraudulently accepting payments from state welfare agencies. During the grand jury investigation, subpoenas were issued for the appearance of two of petitioner's employees. When the employees failed to appear, the Assistant County Prosecutor obtained capiases for their detention. But when two County Deputy Sheriffs attempted to serve the capiases at petitioner's clinic, he barred the door and refused to let them enter the part of the clinic where the employees presumably were located. Thereafter, Cincinnati police officers, whom Pembaur had called, appeared and told Pembaur to allow the Deputy Sheriffs to enter. Pembaur continued to refuse. The Deputy Sheriffs then called their superior who told them to call the County Prosecutor's Office and to follow his instructions. The Deputy Sheriffs spoke to the Assistant Prosecutor assigned to the case. He in turn conferred with the County Prosecutor, who told him to instruct the Deputy Sheriffs to "go in and get" the employees. The Assistant Prosecutor relayed these instructions to the Deputy Sheriffs. After the Deputy Sheriffs tried unsuccessfully to force the door, city police officers obtained an axe and chopped down the door. The Deputy Sheriffs then entered and searched the clinic but were unable to locate the employees sought.

Although Pembaur was acquitted of the fraud charges, he was indicted and convicted for obstructing police in the performance of an authorized act. His conviction was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court. Pembaur then filed a damages action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the county, among other defendants, alleging that the county had violated his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court dismissed the claim against the county on the ground that the individual officers were not acting pursuant to the kind of "official policy" that is the predicate for municipal liability under Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Pembaur had failed to prove the existence of a county policy because he had shown nothing more than that on "this one occasion" the Prosecutor and the Sheriff decided to force entry into Pembaur's clinic. Pembaur petitioned for certiorari review.


Does a decision by municipal policymakers on a single occasion satisfy the requirement for municipal liability for deprivation of federally protected rights pursuant to official municipal policy?




The United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that the "official policy" requirement of Monell was intended to distinguish acts of the municipality from acts of the municipality's employees, and thereby make clear that municipal liability is limited to actions for which the municipality is actually responsible. Monell held that recovery from a municipality is limited to acts that are, properly speaking, "of the municipality," i. e., acts that the municipality has officially sanctioned or ordered. With this understanding, it is plain that municipal liability may be imposed for a single decision by municipal policymakers under appropriate circumstances. If the decision to adopt a particular course of action is directed by those who establish governmental policy, the municipality is equally responsible whether that action is to be taken only once or to be taken repeatedly.

The Court also concluded that it was error to dismiss Pembaur’s claim against the county. Ohio law authorizes the County Sheriff to obtain instructions from the County Prosecutor. The Sheriff followed the practice of delegating certain decisions to the Prosecutor where appropriate. In this case, the Deputy Sheriffs received instructions from the Sheriff's Office to follow the orders of the County Prosecutor, who made a considered decision based on his understanding of the law and commanded the Deputy Sheriffs to enter Pembaur’s clinic. That decision directly caused a violation of Pembaur’s Fourth Amendment rights. In ordering the Deputy Sheriffs to enter Pembaur’s clinic to serve the capiases on the employees, the County Prosecutor was acting as the final decisionmaker for the county, and the county may therefore be held liable under § 1983.

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