Municipalities are not liable for the torts of their employees under the strict-liability doctrine of respondeat superior, as private employers are. A person who wants to impose liability on a municipality for a constitutional tort must show that the tort was committed (that is, authorized or directed) at the policymaking level of government—by the city council, for example, rather than by the police officer who made an illegal arrest. Liability for unauthorized acts is personal; to hold the municipality liable, the agent's action must implement rather than frustrate the government's policy.
On March 20, 2003, the day after the second war between the United States and Iraq began, a large demonstration was held in Chicago by opponents of the U.S. invasion. The demonstration resulted in some 900 arrests, which in turn produced two lawsuits, one a class action suit on behalf of 887 persons—Vodak v. City of Chicago—and the other a suit by 16 individuals—Beal v. City of Chicago. The suits, which were brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and which were consolidated in the district court, charged the City and a number of police officers with violations of the First and Fourth Amendments, together with a long list of violations of state law. The district judge dismissed both suits on summary judgment, reasoning that the officers were immune from being sued for damages because the illegality of their action had not been clearly established when they acted, and that the City was not liable because no official authorized to make policy for the City had been responsible for any of the alleged illegalities.
Did the district court err in granting summary judgment to the City of Chicago?
The Court held that the grant of summary judgment to the defendants was erroneous and must therefore be reversed. Chicago's Superintendent of Police had sole responsibility to make policy regarding control of demonstrations and was the city so far as the demonstration and arrests were concerned.