City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris

CITY OF CANTON, OHIO v. HARRIS, 489 U.S. 378 (1989).

Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court.

[1]In this case, we are asked to determine if a municipality can ever be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutional violations resulting from its failure to train municipal employees. We hold that, under certain circumstances, such liability is permitted by the statute.


[2]In April 1978, respondent Geraldine Harris was arrested by officers of the Canton Police Department. Mrs. Harris was brought to the police station in a patrol wagon.

[3]When she arrived at the station, Mrs. Harris was found sitting on the floor of the wagon. She was asked if she needed medical attention, and responded with an incoherent remark. After she was brought inside the station for processing, Mrs. Harris slumped to the floor on two occasions. Eventually, the police officers left Mrs. Harris lying on the floor to prevent her from falling again. No medical attention was ever summoned for Mrs. Harris. After about an hour, Mrs. Harris was released from custody, and taken by an ambulance (provided by her family) to a nearby hospital. There, Mrs. Harris was diagnosed as suffering from several emotional ailments; she was hospitalized for one week and received subsequent outpatient treatment for an additional year.

[4]Some time later, Mrs. Harris commenced this action alleging many state-law and constitutional claims against the city of Canton and its officials. Among these claims was one seeking to hold the city liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for its violation of Mrs. Harris’ right, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, to receive necessary medical attention while in police custody.

[5]A jury trial was held on Mrs. Harris’ claims. Evidence was presented that indicated that, pursuant to a municipal regulation,[1] shift commanders were authorized to determine, in their sole discretion, whether a detainee required medical care. Tr. 2-139 – 2-143. In addition, testimony also suggested that Canton shift commanders were not provided with any special training (beyond first-aid training) to make a determination as to when to summon medical care for an injured detainee. Ibid.; App. to Pet. for Cert. 4a.

[6]At the close of the evidence, the District Court submitted the case to the jury, which rejected all of Mrs. Harris’ claims except one: her § 1983 claim against the city resulting from its failure to provide her with medical treatment while in custody. In rejecting the city’s subsequent motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the District Court explained the theory of liability as follows:

“The evidence construed in a manner most favorable to Mrs. Harris could be found by a jury to demonstrate that the City of Canton had a custom or policy of vesting complete authority with the police supervisor of when medical treatment would be administered to prisoners. Further, the jury could find from the evidence that the vesting of such carte blanche authority with the police supervisor without adequate training to recognize when medical treatment is needed was grossly negligent or so reckless that future police misconduct was almost inevitable or substantially certain to result.” Id., at 16a.

[7]On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed this aspect of the District Court’s analysis, holding that “a municipality is liable for failure to train its police force, [where] the plaintiff … prove[s] that the municipality acted recklessly, intentionally, or with gross negligence.” Id., at 5a.[2] The Court of Appeals also stated that an additional prerequisite of this theory of liability was that the plaintiff must prove “that the lack of training was so reckless or grossly negligent that deprivations of persons’ constitutional rights were substantially certain to result.” Ibid. Thus, the Court of Appeals found that there had been no error in submitting Mrs. Harris’ “failure to train” claim to the jury. However, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment for respondent, and remanded this case for a new trial, because it found that certain aspects of the District Court’s jury instructions might have led the jury to believe that it could find against the city on a mere respondeat superior theory. Because the jury’s verdict did not state the basis on which it had ruled for Mrs. Harris on her § 1983 claim, a new trial was ordered.

[8]The city petitioned for certiorari, arguing that the Sixth Circuit’s holding represented an impermissible broadening of municipal liability under § 1983. We granted the petition. 485 U.S. 933 (1988).

* * * * *

[9]In Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), we decided that a municipality can be found liable under § 1983 only where the municipality itself causes the constitutional violation at issue. Respondeat superior or vicarious liability will not attach under § 1983. Id. at 694-695. “It is only when the ‘execution of the government’s policy or custom … inflicts the injury’ that the municipality may be held liable under § 1983.” Springfield v. Kibbe, 480 U.S. 257, 267 (1987) (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (quoting Monell, supra, at 694).

[10]Thus, our first inquiry in any case alleging municipal liability under § 1983 is the question whether there is a direct causal link between a municipal policy or custom and the alleged constitutional deprivation. The inquiry is a difficult one; one that has left this Court deeply divided in a series of cases that have followed Monell; one that is the principal focus of our decision again today.


[11]Based on the difficulty that this Court has had defining the contours of municipal liability in these circumstances, petitioner urges us to adopt the rule that a municipality can be found liable under § 1983 only where “the policy in question [is] itself unconstitutional.” Brief for Petitioner 15. Whether such a rule is a valid construction of § 1983 is a question the Court has left unresolved. See, e. g., St. Louis v. Praprotnik, supra, at 147 (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment); Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, supra, at 824, n. 7. Under such an approach, the outcome here would be rather clear: we would have to reverse and remand the case with instructions that judgment be entered for petitioner.[3] There can be little doubt that on its face the city’s policy regarding medical treatment for detainees is constitutional. The policy states that the city jailer “shall … have [a person needing medical care] taken to a hospital for medical treatment, with permission of his supervisor….” App. 33. It is difficult to see what constitutional guarantees are violated by such a policy.

[12]Nor, without more, would a city automatically be liable under § 1983 if one of its employees happened to apply the policy in an unconstitutional manner, for liability would then rest on respondeat superior. The claim in this case, however, is that if a concededly valid policy is unconstitutionally applied by a municipal employee, the city is liable if the employee has not been adequately trained and the constitutional wrong has been caused by that failure to train. For reasons explained below, we conclude, as have all the Courts of Appeals that have addressed this issue, that there are limited circumstances in which an allegation of a “failure to train” can be the basis for liability under § 1983. Thus, we reject petitioner’s contention that only unconstitutional policies are actionable under the statute.


[13]Though we agree with the court below that a city can be liable under § 1983 for inadequate training of its employees, we cannot agree that the District Court’s jury instructions on this issue were proper, for we conclude that the Court of Appeals provided an overly broad rule for when a municipality can be held liable under the “failure to train” theory. Unlike the question whether a municipality’s failure to train employees can ever be a basis for § 1983 liability—on which the Courts of Appeals have all agreed, see n. 6, supra,—there is substantial division among the lower courts as to what degree of fault must be evidenced by the municipality’s inaction before liability will be permitted.[4] We hold today that the inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for § 1983 liability only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact.[5] This rule is most consistent with our admonition in Monell, 436 U.S., at 694, and Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 326 (1981), that a municipality can be liable under § 1983 only where its policies are the “moving force [behind] the constitutional violation.” Only where a municipality’s failure to train its employees in a relevant respect evidences a “deliberate indifference” to the rights of its inhabitants can such a shortcoming be properly thought of as a city “policy or custom” that is actionable under § 1983. As Justice Brennan’s opinion in Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483-484 (1986) (plurality) put it: “[M]unicipal liability under § 1983 attaches where—and only where—a deliberate choice to follow a course of action is made from among various alternatives” by city policymakers. See also Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. at 823 (opinion of Rehnquist, J.). Only where a failure to train reflects a “deliberate” or “conscious” choice by a municipality—a “policy” as defined by our prior cases—can a city be liable for such a failure under § 1983.

[14]Monell’s rule that a city is not liable under § 1983 unless a municipal policy causes a constitutional deprivation will not be satisfied by merely alleging that the existing training program for a class of employees, such as police officers, represents a policy for which the city is responsible.[6] That much may be true. The issue in a case like this one, however, is whether that training program is adequate; and if it is not, the question becomes whether such inadequate training can justifiably be said to represent “city policy.” It may seem contrary to common sense to assert that a municipality will actually have a policy of not taking reasonable steps to train its employees. But it may happen that in light of the duties assigned to specific officers or employees the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need.[7] In that event, the failure to provide proper training may fairly be said to represent a policy for which the city is responsible, and for which the city may be held liable if it actually causes injury.[8]
[15]In resolving the issue of a city’s liability, the focus must be on adequacy of the training program in relation to the tasks the particular officers must perform. That a particular officer may be unsatisfactorily trained will not alone suffice to fasten liability on the city, for the officer’s shortcomings may have resulted from factors other than a faulty training program. See Springfield v. Kibbe, 480 U.S., at 268 (O’Connor, J., dissenting); Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, supra, at 821 (opinion of Rehnquist, J.). It may be, for example, that an otherwise sound program has occasionally been negligently administered. Neither will it suffice to prove that an injury or accident could have been avoided if an officer had had better or more training, sufficient to equip him to avoid the particular injury-causing conduct. Such a claim could be made about almost any encounter resulting in injury, yet not condemn the adequacy of the program to enable officers to respond properly to the usual and recurring situations with which they must deal. And plainly, adequately trained officers occasionally make mistakes; the fact that they do says little about the training program or the legal basis for holding the city liable.

[16]Moreover, for liability to attach in this circumstance the identified deficiency in a city’s training program must be closely related to the ultimate injury. Thus in the case at hand, respondent must still prove that the deficiency in training actually caused the police officers’ indifference to her medical needs.[9] Would the injury have been avoided had the employee been trained under a program that was not deficient in the identified respect? Predicting how a hypothetically well-trained officer would have acted under the circumstances may not be an easy task for the factfinder, particularly since matters of judgment may be involved, and since officers who are well trained are not free from error and perhaps might react very much like the untrained officer in similar circumstances. But judge and jury, doing their respective jobs, will be adequate to the task.

[17]To adopt lesser standards of fault and causation would open municipalities to unprecedented liability under § 1983. In virtually every instance where a person has had his or her constitutional rights violated by a city employee, a § 1983 plaintiff will be able to point to something the city “could have done” to prevent the unfortunate incident. See Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. at 823 (opinion of Rehnquist, J.). Thus, permitting cases against cities for their “failure to train” employees to go forward under § 1983 on a lesser standard of fault would result in de facto respondeat superior liability on municipalities—a result we rejected in Monell, 436 U.S. at 693-694. It would also engage the federal courts in an endless exercise of second-guessing municipal employee-training programs. This is an exercise we believe the federal courts are ill suited to undertake, as well as one that would implicate serious questions of federalism. Cf. Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362, 378-380 (1976).

[18]Consequently, while claims such as respondent’s—alleging that the city’s failure to provide training to municipal employees resulted in the constitutional deprivation she suffered—are cognizable under § 1983, they can only yield liability against a municipality where that city’s failure to train reflects deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of its inhabitants.


[19]The final question here is whether this case should be remanded for a new trial, or whether, as petitioner suggests, we should conclude that there are no possible grounds on which respondent can prevail. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 57-58. It is true that the evidence in the record now does not meet the standard of § 1983 liability we have set forth above. But the standard of proof the District Court ultimately imposed on respondent (which was consistent with Sixth Circuit precedent) was a lesser one than the one we adopt today, see Tr. 4-389 – 4-390. Whether respondent should have an opportunity to prove her case under the “deliberate indifference” rule we have adopted is a matter for the Court of Appeals to deal with on remand.


[20]Consequently, for the reasons given above, we vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Justice Brennan, concurring.

[21]The Court’s opinion, which I join, makes clear that the Court of Appeals is free to remand this case for a new trial.

Justice O’Connor, with whom Justice Scalia and Justice Kennedy join, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

[22]I join Parts I and II and all of Part III of the Court’s opinion except footnote 11, see ante, at 390, n.11. I thus agree that where municipal policymakers are confronted with an obvious need to train city personnel to avoid the violation of constitutional rights and they are deliberately indifferent to that need, the lack of necessary training may be appropriately considered a city “policy” subjecting the city itself to liability under our decision in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). As the Court observes, “[o]nly where a failure to train reflects a ‘deliberate’ or ‘conscious’ choice by a municipality—a ‘policy’ as defined by our prior cases—can a city be liable for such a failure under [42 U.S.C.] § 1983.” Ante, at 389. I further agree that a § 1983 plaintiff pressing a “failure to train” claim must prove that the lack of training was the “cause” of the constitutional injury at issue and that this entails more than simply showing “but for” causation. Ante, at 392. Lesser requirements of fault and causation in this context would “open municipalities to unprecedented liability under § 1983,” ante, at 391, and would pose serious federalism concerns. Ante, at 392.

[23]My single point of disagreement with the majority is thus a small one. Because I believe, as the majority strongly hints, see ibid., that respondent has not and could not satisfy the fault and causation requirements we adopt today, I think it unnecessary to remand this case to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings. This case comes to us after a full trial during which respondent vigorously pursued numerous theories of municipal liability including an allegation that the city had a “custom” of not providing medical care to detainees suffering from emotional illnesses. Respondent thus had every opportunity and incentive to adduce the type of proof necessary to satisfy the deliberate indifference standard we adopt today. Rather than remand in this context, I would apply the deliberate indifference standard to the facts of this case. After undertaking that analysis below, I conclude that there is no evidence in the record indicating that the city of Canton has been deliberately indifferent to the constitutional rights of pretrial detainees.


[24]In Monell, the Court held that municipal liability can be imposed under § 1983 only where the municipality, as an entity, can be said to be “responsible” for a constitutional violation committed by one of its employees. “[T]he touchstone of the § 1983 action against a government body is an allegation that official policy is responsible for a deprivation of rights protected by the Constitution.” 436 U.S. at 690. The Court found that the language of § 1983, and rejection of the “Sherman Amendment” by the 42d Congress, were both strong indicators that the framers of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 did not intend that municipal governments be held vicariously liable for the constitutional torts of their employees. Thus a § 1983 plaintiff seeking to attach liability to the city for the acts of one of its employees may not rest on the employment relationship alone; both fault and causation as to the acts or omissions of the city itself must be proved. The Court reaffirms these requirements today.

[25]Where, as here, a claim of municipal liability is predicated upon a failure to act, the requisite degree of fault must be shown by proof of a background of events and circumstances which establish that the “policy of inaction” is the functional equivalent of a decision by the city itself to violate the Constitution. Without some form of notice to the city, and the opportunity to conform to constitutional dictates both what it does and what it chooses not to do, the failure to train theory of liability could completely engulf Monell, imposing liability without regard to fault. Moreover, absent a requirement that the lack of training at issue bear a very close causal connection to the violation of constitutional rights, the failure to train theory of municipal liability could impose “prophylactic” duties on municipal governments only remotely connected to underlying constitutional requirements themselves.

[26]Such results would be directly contrary to the intent of the drafters of § 1983. The central vice of the Sherman Amendment, as noted by the Court’s opinion in Monell, was that it “impose[d] a species of vicarious liability on municipalities since it could be construed to impose liability even if the municipality did not know of an impending or ensuing riot or did not have the wherewithal to do anything about it.” 436 U.S. at 692, n.57 (emphasis added). Moreover, as noted in Monell, the authors of § 1 of the Ku Klux Act did not intend to create any new rights or duties beyond those contained in the Constitution. Id. at 684-685. Thus, § 1 was referred to as “reenacting the Constitution.” Cong. Globe, 42d Cong., 1st Sess., 569 (1871) (Rep. Edmunds). Representative Bingham, the author of § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, saw the purpose of § 1983 as “the enforcement … of the Constitution on behalf of every individual citizen of the Republic … to the extent of the rights guaranteed to him by the Constitution.” Id. at App. 81. See also Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Organization, 441 U.S. 600, 617 (1979) (“[Section] 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 did not provide for any substantive rights—equal or otherwise. As introduced and enacted, it served only to insure that an individual had a cause of action for violations of the Constitution”). Thus § 1983 is not a “federal good government act” for municipalities. Rather it creates a federal cause of action against persons, including municipalities, who deprive citizens of the United States of their constitutional rights.

[27]Sensitive to these concerns, the Court’s opinion correctly requires a high degree of fault on the part of city officials before an omission that is not in itself unconstitutional can support liability as a municipal policy under Monell. As the Court indicates, “it may happen that … the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need.” Ante, at 390. Where a § 1983 plaintiff can establish that the facts available to city policymakers put them on actual or constructive notice that the particular omission is substantially certain to result in the violation of the constitutional rights of their citizens, the dictates of Monell are satisfied. Only then can it be said that the municipality has made “‘a deliberate choice to follow a course of action … from among various alternatives.'” Ante, at 389, quoting Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483-484 (1986).

[28]In my view, it could be shown that the need for training was obvious in one of two ways. First, a municipality could fail to train its employees concerning a clear constitutional duty implicated in recurrent situations that a particular employee is certain to face. As the majority notes, see ante, at 390, n.10, the constitutional limitations established by this Court on the use of deadly force by police officers present one such situation. The constitutional duty of the individual officer is clear, and it is equally clear that failure to inform city personnel of that duty will create an extremely high risk that constitutional violations will ensue.

[29]The claim in this case—that police officers were inadequately trained in diagnosing the symptoms of emotional illness—falls far short of the kind of “obvious” need for training that would support a finding of deliberate indifference to constitutional rights on the part of the city. As the Court’s opinion observes, ante, at 388-389, n.8, this Court has not yet addressed the precise nature of the obligations that the Due Process Clause places upon the police to seek medical care for pretrial detainees who have been physically injured while being apprehended by the police. See Revere v. Massachusetts General Hospital, 463 U.S. 239, 246 (1983) (Rehnquist, J., concurring). There are thus no clear constitutional guideposts for municipalities in this area, and the diagnosis of mental illness is not one of the “usual and recurring situations with which [the police] must deal.” Ante, at 391. The lack of training at issue here is not the kind of omission that can be characterized, in and of itself, as a “deliberate indifference” to constitutional rights.

[30]Second, I think municipal liability for failure to train may be proper where it can be shown that policymakers were aware of, and acquiesced in, a pattern of constitutional violations involving the exercise of police discretion. In such cases, the need for training may not be obvious from the outset, but a pattern of constitutional violations could put the municipality on notice that its officers confront the particular situation on a regular basis, and that they often react in a manner contrary to constitutional requirements. The lower courts that have applied the “deliberate indifference” standard we adopt today have required a showing of a pattern of violations from which a kind of “tacit authorization” by city policymakers can be inferred. See, e.g., Fiacco v. Rensselaer, 783 F. 2d 319, 327 (CA2 1986) (multiple incidents required for finding of deliberate indifference); Patzner v. Burkett, 779 F.2d 1363, 1367 (CA8 1985) (“[A] municipality may be liable if it had notice of prior misbehavior by its officers and failed to take remedial steps amounting to deliberate indifference to the offensive acts”); Languirand v. Hayden, 717 F.2d 220, 227-228 (CA5 1983) (municipal liability for failure to train requires “evidence at least of a pattern of similar incidents in which citizens were injured or endangered”); Wellington v. Daniels, 717 F.2d 932, 936 (CA4 1983) (“[A] failure to supervise gives rise to § 1983 liability, however, only in those situations where there is a history of widespread abuse. Only then may knowledge be imputed to the supervisory personnel”).

[31]The Court’s opinion recognizes this requirement, see ante, at 390, and n.10, but declines to evaluate the evidence presented in this case in light of the new legal standard. Ante, at 392. From the outset of this litigation, respondent has pressed a claim that the city of Canton had a custom of denying medical care to pretrial detainees with emotional disorders. See Amended Complaint para. 28, App. 27. Indeed, up to and including oral argument before this Court, counsel for respondent continued to assert that respondent was attempting to hinge municipal liability upon “both a custom of denying medical care to a certain class of prisoners, and a failure to train police that led to this particular violation.” Tr. of Oral Arg. 37-38. At the time respondent filed her complaint in 1980, it was clear that proof of the existence of a custom entailed a showing of “practices … so permanent and well settled as to constitute a ‘custom or usage’ with the force of law.” Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 168 (1970); see also Garner v. Memphis Police Department, 600 F.2d 52, 54-55, and n.4 (CA6 1979) (discussing proof of custom in light of Monell).

[32]Whatever the prevailing standard at the time concerning liability for failure to train, respondent thus had every incentive to adduce proof at trial of a pattern of violations to support her claim that the city had an unwritten custom of denying medical care to emotionally ill detainees. In fact, respondent presented no testimony from any witness indicating that there had been past incidents of “deliberate indifference” to the medical needs of emotionally disturbed detainees or that any other circumstance had put the city on actual or constructive notice of a need for additional training in this regard. At trial, David Maser, who was Chief of Police of the city of Canton from 1971 to 1980, testified without contradiction that during his tenure he received no complaints that detainees in the Canton jails were not being accorded proper medical treatment. Tr. 4-347 – 4-348. Former Officer Cherry, who had served as a jailer for the Canton Police Department, indicated that he had never had to seek medical treatment for persons who were emotionally upset at the prospect of arrest, because they usually calmed down when a member of the department spoke with them or one of their family members arrived. Id. at 4-83 – 4-84. There is quite simply nothing in this record to indicate that the city of Canton had any reason to suspect that failing to provide this kind of training would lead to injuries of any kind, let alone violations of the Due Process Clause. None of the Courts of Appeals that already apply the standard we adopt today would allow respondent to take her claim to a jury based on the facts she adduced at trial. See Patzner v. Burkett, supra, at 1367 (summary judgment proper under “deliberate indifference” standard where evidence of only single incident adduced); Languirand v. Hayden, supra, at 229 (reversing jury verdict rendered under failure to train theory where there was no evidence of prior incidents to support a finding that municipal policymakers were “consciously indifferent” to constitutional rights); Wellington v. Daniels, supra, at 937 (affirming judgment notwithstanding verdict for municipality under “deliberate indifference” standard where evidence of only a single incident was presented at trial); cf. Fiacco v. Rensselaer, supra, at 328-332 (finding evidence of “deliberate indifference” sufficient to support jury verdict where a pattern of similar violations was shown at trial).

[33]Allowing an inadequate training claim such as this one to go to the jury based upon a single incident would only invite jury nullification of Monell. “To infer the existence of a city policy from the isolated misconduct of a single, low-level officer, and then to hold the city liable on the basis of that policy, would amount to permitting precisely the theory of strict respondeat superior liability rejected in Monell.” Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 831 (1985) (Brennan, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). As the authors of the Ku Klux Act themselves realized, the resources of local government are not inexhaustible. The grave step of shifting those resources to particular areas where constitutional violations are likely to result through the deterrent power of § 1983 should certainly not be taken on the basis of an isolated incident. If § 1983 and the Constitution require the city of Canton to provide detailed medical and psychological training to its police officers, or to station paramedics at its jails, other city services will necessarily suffer, including those with far more direct implications for the protection of constitutional rights. Because respondent’s evidence falls far short of establishing the high degree of fault on the part of the city required by our decision today, and because there is no indication that respondent could produce any new proof in this regard, I would reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and order entry of judgment for the city.

download arrowCity of Canton, Ohio v. Harris – Audio and Transcript of Oral Argument


  1. The city regulation in question provides that a police officer assigned to act as “jailer” at the city police station “shall, when a prisoner is found to be unconscious or semi-unconscious, or when he or she is unable to explain his or her condition, or who complains of being ill, have such person taken to a hospital for medical treatment, with permission of his supervisor before admitting the person to City Jail.” App. 33.


  2. In upholding Mrs. Harris’ “failure to train” claim, the Sixth Circuit relied on two of its previous decisions which has approved such a theory of municipal liability under § 1983. See Rymer v. Davis, 754 F.2d 198, vacated and remanded sub nom. Shepherdsville v. Rymer, 473 U.S. 901, reinstated, 775 F.2d 756, 757 (1985); Hays v. Jefferson County, 668 F.2d 869, 874 (1982).


  3. In this Court, in addition to suggesting that the city’s failure to train its officers amounted to a “policy” that resulted in the denial of medical care to detainees, respondent also contended the city had a “custom” of denying medical care to those detainees suffering from emotional or mental ailments. See Brief for Respondent 31-32; Tr. of Oral Arg. 38-39. As respondent described it in her brief, and at argument, this claim of an unconstitutional “custom” appears to be little more than a restatement of her “failure-to-train as policy” claim. See ibid. However, to the extent that this claim poses a distinct basis for the city’s liability under § 1983, we decline to determine whether respondent’s contention that such a “custom” existed is an alternative ground for affirmance. The “custom” claim was not passed on by the Court of Appeals—nor does it appear to have been presented to that court as a distinct ground for its decision. See Brief of Appellee in No. 85-3314 (CA6), pp. 4-9, 11. Thus, we will not consider it here.


  4. Some courts have held that a showing of “gross negligence” in a city’s failure to train its employees is adequate to make out a claim under § 1983. See, e. g., Bergquist v. County of Cochise, supra, at 1370; Herrera v. Valentine, 653 F.2d 1220, 1224 (CA8 1981). But the more common rule is that a city must exhibit “deliberate indifference” towards the constitutional rights of persons in its domain before a § 1983 action for “failure to train” is permissible. See, e.g., Fiacco v. Rensselaer, supra, at 326; Patzner v. Burkett, 779 F.2d 1363, 1367 (CA8 1985); Wellington v. Daniels, 717 F.2d 932, 936 (CA4 1983); Languirand v. Hayden, supra, at 227.


  5. The “deliberate indifference” standard we adopt for § 1983 “failure to train” claims does not turn upon the degree of fault (if any) that a plaintiff must show to make out an underlying claim of a constitutional violation. For example, this Court has never determined what degree of culpability must be shown before the particular constitutional deprivation asserted in this case—a denial of the due process right to medical care while in detention—is established. Indeed, in Revere v. Massachusetts General Hospital, 463 U.S. 239, 243-245 (1983), we reserved decision on the question whether something less than the Eighth Amendment’s “deliberate indifference” test may be applicable in claims by detainees asserting violations of their due process right to medical care while in custody. We need not resolve here the question left open in Revere for two reasons. First, petitioner has conceded that, as the case comes to us, we must assume that respondent’s constitutional right to receive medical care was denied by city employees—whatever the nature of that right might be. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 8-9. Second, the proper standard for determining when a municipality will be liable under § 1983 for constitutional wrongs does not turn on any underlying culpability test that determines when such wrongs have occurred. Cf. Brief for Respondent 27.


  6. The plurality opinion in Tuttle explained why this must be so: “Obviously, if one retreats far enough from a constitutional violation some municipal ‘policy’ can be identified behind almost any … harm inflicted by a municipal official; for example, [a police officer] would never have killed Tuttle if Oklahoma City did not have a ‘policy’ of establishing a police force. But Monell must be taken to require proof of a city policy different in kind from this latter example before a claim can be sent to a jury on the theory that a particular violation was ’caused’ by the municipal ‘policy.'” 471 U.S. at 823. Cf. also id. at 833, n.9 (opinion of Brennan, J.).


  7. For example, city policymakers know to a moral certainty that their police officers will be required to arrest fleeing felons. The city has armed its officers with firearms, in part to allow them to accomplish this task. Thus, the need to train officers in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force, see Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), can be said to be “so obvious,” that failure to do so could properly be characterized as “deliberate indifference” to constitutional rights. It could also be that the police, in exercising their discretion, so often violate constitutional rights that the need for further training must have been plainly obvious to the city policymakers, who, nevertheless, are “deliberately indifferent” to the need.


  8. The record indicates that city did train its officers and that its training included first-aid instruction. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 4a. Petitioner argues that it could not have been obvious to the city that such training was insufficient to administer the written policy, which was itself constitutional. This is a question to be resolved on remand. See Part IV, infra.


  9. Respondent conceded as much at argument. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 50-51; cf. also Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, supra, at 831 (opinion of Brennan, J.).

Notes on City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris

  1. Should a plaintiff be required to prove deliberate indifference to hold a local governmental entity liable? What policy reasons support exonerating a municipality where the jury finds a) a violation of the Constitution, b) the violation was caused by the municipality’s failure to train its officials; and c) the municipality’s training failed to comport with training afforded by a reasonable governmental entity in the same circumstances? Is there any reason even to require proof of negligence if the jury finds the constitutional violation was caused by the municipality’s failure to train its employees?
  2. What proof must be offered to establish deliberate indifference?
      1. Justice O’Connor proposed that deliberate indifference may be proven where a local government fails to train its employees “concerning a clear constitutional duty implicated in recurrent situations that a particular employee is certain to face.” 489 U.S. at 396. Does Justice O’Connor’s approach in effect confer qualified immunity upon municipalities for failure to train whenever the constitutional right is not clearly established? See Gonzalez v. Ysleta Independent School Dist., 996 F.2d 745, 760-61 (5th Cir. 1993) (“There are some indications that Canton requires a showing of deliberate indifference to citizens’ constitutional rights, not merely the harm inflicted by city employees that gives rise to constitutional claims. It therefore may well be, as several district courts have held, that “to be ‘deliberately indifferent’ to rights requires that those rights be clearly established.’”); Cornfield by Lewis v. School Dist. No. 230, 991 F.2d 1316, 1327 (7th Cir. 1993) (“Given the nebulous standards governing student searches, school districts … cannot be held accountable on this ground [failure to train] because the particular constitutional duty is not clear.”).
    1. In Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115 (1992), the plaintiff averred that the city’s deliberate indifference to her husband’s safety was arbitrary governmental action that shocked the conscience under the Due Process Clause. The Court upheld dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint, concluding that the claimed failure to train the city’s employees did not contravene the substantive due process protections of the Fourteenth Amendment:

      Our refusal to characterize the city’s alleged omission in this case as arbitrary in a constitutional sense rests upon the presumption that the administration of government programs is based upon the rational decisionmaking process that takes account of competing social, political and economic forces. Decisions concerning the allocation of resources to … the training of employees, involve a host of policy choices that must be made by locally elected representatives, rather than by federal judges interpreting the basic charter of Government for the entire country.

      Collins, 503 U.S. at 128-29. Should the same presumption and deference apply in assessing whether the plaintiff has proven deliberate indifference to the need to train to establish municipal policy under Section 1983?

    2. In Walker v. City of New York, 974 F.2d 293, 297-98 (2nd Cir. 1992), the court of appeals offered that under Canton, three requirements must be satisfied to prove deliberate indifference:

      First, the plaintiff must show that a policymaker knows “to a moral certainty” that her employees will confront a given situation. Id. Thus, a policymaker does not exhibit deliberate indifference by failing to train employees for rare or unforeseen events.

      Second, the plaintiff must show that the situation either presents the employee with a difficult choice of the sort that training or supervision will make less difficult or that there is a history of employees mishandling the situation. Whether to use deadly force in apprehending a fleeing suspect qualifies as a “difficult choice” because more than the application of common sense is required. Instead, police officers must adhere to the rule of Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 105 S. Ct. 1694, 85 L. Ed.2d 1 (1985), that deadly force may constitutionally be applied to a fleeing suspect only when “the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm” and when, “where possible, some warning has been given.” Id. at 11-12, 105 S. Ct. at 1701. A choice might also be difficult where, although the proper course is clear, the employee has powerful incentives to make the wrong choice.

      Finally, the plaintiff must show that the wrong choice by the city employee will frequently cause the deprivation of a citizens’ constitutional rights. City of Canton, 489 U.S. at 390, 109 S. Ct. at 1205. Thus, municipal policymakers may appropriately concentrate training and supervision resources on those situations where employee misconduct is likely to deprive citizens of constitutional rights.

      Where the plaintiff establishes all three elements, then we think it can be said with confidence that the policymaker should have known that inadequate training or supervision was “so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to need.”

    3. In Tittle v. Jefferson County Commission, 10 F.3d 1535 (11th Cir. 1994) (en banc), the personal representatives of the estates of two inmates who committed suicide by hanging themselves by a strip of bed sheet tied to a bar across the cell window brought a Section 1983 action against the County. In sixteen months prior to the one inmate’s suicide, there had been twenty-seven suicide attempts and two suicides in the Jefferson County Jail.The court of appeals, sitting en banc, overturned the panel’s reversal of the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the County on the claim that the County was deliberately indifferent to the risk of suicide at the jail:

      [A] finding of deliberate indifference requires that officials have notice of the suicidal tendency of the individual whose rights are at issue in order to be held liable for then suicide of that individual. [D]eliberate indifference can only be established where a plaintiff demonstrates a “‘strong likelihood, rather than a mere possibility,’” that suicide would result from a defendant’s action or inaction.

      * * * * *

      The plaintiffs cite no authority that supports the argument that the occurrence of two suicides and twenty-seven attempted suicides in the jail requires County officials to conclude that all prisoners of the Jefferson County Jail are likely to attempt suicide The fact that one suicide occurred before Tittle committed suicide and two suicides occurred before Harrell committed suicide, without more, did not increase the possibility of suicide to a strong likelihood.

      10 F.3d at 1540-41.

    4. In Foley v. City of Lowell, Mass., 948 F.2d 10 (1st Cir. 1991), the First Circuit considered whether evidence of subsequent incidents of alleged violations can be used to establish a municipal policy of inadequate of training. Plaintiff arrestee alleged: 1) that his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights had been violated when he was brutally beaten by police; and 2) the City of Lowell had inadequately trained and supervised its police force and had allowed its police force to enforce “constitutionally offensive policies.” Id. at 12. Plaintiff sought to admit evidence of a subsequent incident of police misconduct (which involved a police officer urinating on an individual) as evidence of a “municipal policy and custom of studied indifference to the violation of constitutional rights by police officers.” Id. at 13. Plaintiff further wished to include evidence of the individual officer’s subsequent promotion as relevant to proving indifference to such misconduct. Id. In allowing evidence of the promotion to be introduced, the court reasoned,

      [w]e think the actions taken subsequent to an event are admissible if, and to the extent that, they provide reliable insight into the policy in force at the time of the incident [w]e do not mean to imply that all post-event evidence is automatically admissible in a section 1983 “custom or policy” case. Rather, the question that must be asked when post-event evidence is proffered is whether the evidence is sufficiently related to the central occurrence….


      Id. (italics added).

      See also Henry v. County of Shasta, 132 F.3d 512, 519 (9th Cir. 1997) (“[P]ost-event evidence is not only admissible for purposes of proving the existence of a municipal defendant’s policy or custom, but is highly probative with respect to that inquiry.”)

  3. If plaintiff has proven that a local governmental entity was deliberately indifferent to the need for training, must the plaintiff also prove that the failure to train was a proximate cause of the deprivation of constitutional rights in order to recover damages against the entity? See Van Ort v. Estate of Stanewich, 92 F.3d 831 (9th Cir. 1996), Searcy v. City of Dayton, 38 F.3d 282 (6th Cir. 1994), Ricketts v. City of Columbia, 36 F.3d 775 (8th Cir. 1994) and Fernandez v. Leonard, 963 F.2d 459 (1st Cir. 1992) (municipality not liable absent proof of causal link). In City of Springfield, Mass v. Kibbe, 475 U.S. 1064 (1986), the Supreme Court had granted certiorari to resolve whether a plaintiff is required to prove more than negligence to establish municipal liability for failure to train. The Court subsequently dismissed the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted because the city had not objected to the trial court’s instruction that the jury could award damages against the city for gross negligence in training. City of Springfield v. Kibbe, 480 U.S. 257 (1987). Justice O’Connor, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice White and Justice Powell, dissented from dismissal of the writ and promoted the following view of the culpability issue:

    In this case, the causal connection between the municipal policy and the constitutional violation is an inherently tenuous one. Respondent does not contend that the City’s police training program authorizes the use of deadly force in the apprehension of fleeing vehicles; rather, her argument is that the methods taught in the City’s training program were “inadequate,” and that if individual officers had received more complete training, they would have resorted to those alternative methods without engaging in the unconstitutional conduct. The difficulty with respondent’s argument is that at the time of the officer’s alleged misconduct, any number of other factors were also in operation that were equally likely to contribute or play a predominant part in bringing about the constitutional injury: the disposition of the individual officers, the extent of their experience with similar incidents, the actions of the other officers involved, and so forth. To conclude, in a particular instance, that omissions in a municipal training program constituted the “moving force” in bringing about the officer’s unconstitutional conduct, notwithstanding the large number of intervening causes also at work up to the time of the constitutional harm, appears to be largely a matter of speculation and conjecture.

    Because of the remote causal connection between omissions in a police training program and affirmative misconduct by individual officers in a particular instance, in my view the “inadequacy” of police training may serve as a basis for § 1983 liability only where failure to train amounts to a reckless disregard for or deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with the city’s domain. The “causation” requirement of § 1983 is a matter of statutory interpretation rather than of common tort law. Cf. Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277, 285, 100 S. Ct. 553, 559, 62 L. Ed.2d 481 (1980) (injury “too remote a consequence” of official conduct to impose liability under § 1983, even if conduct “proximately caused” injury under state tort law). Analogy to traditional tort principles, however, shows that the law has been willing to trace more distant causation when there is a cognitive component to the defendant’s fault than when the defendant’s conduct results from simple or heightened negligence. See, e.g., RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 501, Comment a, p.591 (1965) (“a jury may be permitted to find that a defendant’s reckless misconduct bears a sufficient causal relation to a plaintiff’s harm to make him liable, although were the defendant’s conduct merely negligent, no such finding would be permissible”). See generally, W. KEETON, D. DOBBS, R. KEETON, & D. OWEN, PROSSER AND KEETON ON LAW OF TORTS § 34, p.213 (5th ed. 1984). Similarly, a jury should be permitted to find that the municipality’s inadequate training “caused” the plaintiff’s injury only if the inadequacy of the training amounts to deliberate indifference or reckless disregard for the consequences. Negligence in training alone is not sufficient to satisfy the causation requirement of § 1983.

    Kibbe, 480 U.S. at 268-69.

    1. Is Justice O’Connor’s use of tort principles to guide the construction of the causation requirement of Section 1983 consistent with the Court’s interpretation of causation in Part II of Monell? Would Justice O’Connor have reached the same conclusion if she had applied the general rules of construction for Section 1983 utilized in Part I of Monell and in Owen?
    2. Accepting Justice O’Connor’s analysis, is the need for evidence of causation obviated once the plaintiff has satisfied the policy requirement by establishing deliberate indifference to the need for training? See Gentile v. City of Suffolk, 926 F.2d 142, 152-53 (2nd Cir. 1990) (“Plaintiffs were not obligated to produce specific evidence that defendants had knowledge of a declared policy of the County and acted on this knowledge in promoting the malicious prosecution of plaintiffs…. The critical question here is whether there is sufficient evidence in the record of municipal policy, custom or practice so that the jury could reasonably infer that the individual conduct in this case was causally connected to the policy….’ [A] causal connection … might permissibly be implied’ from ‘conduct’ such as inadequate training.”).
  4. After Canton, must the plaintiff also prove deliberate indifference to impose liability upon the individual supervisory official for failure to train, even where plaintiff need not prove that degree of culpability to establish a constitutional violation? See S. NAHMOD, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION, § 3:97 (4th ed 1997) (“City of Canton v. Harris indicates that henceforth, as a matter of § 1983 statutory interpretation, supervisory liability will require at least deliberate indifference (on the part of the supervisors) to the rights of persons with whom subordinates come into contact. Indeed, this is clearly the trend in the circuits.”); Doe v. Taylor Independent School District, 15 F.3d 443, 453 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (“The legal elements of an individual’s supervisory liability and a political subdivision’s liability … are similar enough that the same standards of fault and causation should govern.”); Walker v. Norris, 917 F.2d 1449 (6th Cir. 1990); Greason v. Kemp, 891 F.2d 829 (11th Cir. 1990); Sample v. Diecks, 855 F.2d 1099, 1118 (3rd. Cir. 1989) (“the standard of individual liability for supervisory public officials will be found no less stringent than the standard of liability for the public entities that they serve.”).
      1. What language in Section 1983 was the Canton Court interpreting? Does Canton have any relevance to the liability of individual supervisors?
      2. As we learned earlier, in Ashcroft v. Iqbal  the Court held that a plaintiff seeking to hold a supervisory official liable for deprivations of constitutional rights inflicted by their subordinates must prove that the supervisor acted with the requisite culpability to constitute a violation of the Constitution. Does Iqbal apply to Section1983 actions seeking to impose liability on a local governmental entity for failure to train?

  5. In City of Los Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 796 (1986), plaintiff sued the City of Los Angeles as well as police officer Bushey for allegedly using excessive force in the course of an arrest. The district court bifurcated the case and first heard the claim against Officer Bushey. Officer Bushey did not plead a qualified immunity defense. However, Bushey offered evidence that his conduct comported with official department policy, which was deemed relevant to plaintiff’s allegation that the use of force was unreasonable under all the circumstances, and therefore unconstitutional. The jury returned a general verdict in favor of Officer Bushey. The district court then dismissed the action against the city. The court of appeals found that the district court erred in dismissing the city, agreeing with plaintiff’s argument that “the jury could have believed that Bushey, having followed Police Department regulations, was entitled in substance to a defense of good faith. Such a belief would not negate the existence of a constitutional injury.” Heller v. Bushey, 759 F.2d 1371, 1373-74 (9th Cir. 1985).In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals, reasoning as follows:

[T]he jury was not charged on any affirmative defense such as good faith which might have been availed of by the individual police officer. Respondent contends in his brief in opposition to certiorari that even though no issue of qualified immunity was presented to the jury, the jury might nonetheless have considered evidence which would have supported a finding of such immunity. But the theory under which the jury instructions are given by trial courts and reviewed on appeal is that juries act in accordance with the instructions given them … and that they do not consider and base their decisions on legal questions with respect to which they are not charged….

[N]either Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), nor any other of our cases authorizes the award of damages against a municipal corporation based on the actions of one of its officers when in fact the jury has concluded that the officer inflicted no constitutional harm. If a defendant has suffered no constitutional injury at the hands of the individual police officer, the fact that the departmental regulations might have authorized the use of constitutionally excessive force is quite beside the point.

475 U.S. at 798-99.

Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Marshall, vigorously dissented:

If the Court’s unprecedented, ill-considered, and far-reaching decision happens to be correct, defendants as a class have been presented with a tactical weapon of great value. By persuading trial judges to bifurcate trials in which both the principal and its agents are named as defendants, and to require the jury to bring in its verdict on the individual claim first, they may obtain the benefit of whatever intangible factors have prompted juries to bring in a multitude of inconsistent verdicts in past years; defendants will no longer have to abide the mechanisms that courts have used to mitigate and resolve apparent inconsistencies. Perhaps that is an appropriate response to the current widespread concern about the potential liabilities of our municipalities, but I doubt it.

Id. at 807-08.

Would the claim against the city have been dismissed if Officer Bushey had raised a qualified immunity defense? See Dodd v. City of Norwich, 815 F.2d 862, 868 (2d Cir. 1987) (“Where, as here, a police officer carries out municipal policy…there is a potential for municipal liability even though the police officer may be personally immune from liability for having executed the arrest in the manner in which he had been trained under the city’s policy”). If Officer Bushey had pleaded the qualified immunity, should either party have sought to have the jury answer special interrogatories as part of its verdict? If so, what party?

    1. [I]n a substantive due process case arising out of a police pursuit, an underlying constitutional tort can still exist even if no individual police officer violated the Constitution. Unlike in Heller, the plaintiffs in this case brought separate, independent constitutional claims against the pursuing officers and the City. These claims are based on different theories and require proof of different actions and mental state. The pursuing officers are liable under § 1983 [only] if their conduct “shocks the conscience.” The city is liable under § 1983 if its policymakers, acting with deliberate indifference, implemented a policy of inadequate training and thereby caused the officers to conduct the pursuit in an unsafe manner and deprive the plaintiff of life or liberty. Fagan v. City of Vineland, 22 F.3d 1283, 1292 (3rd Cir. 1994); contra Evans v. Avery, 100 F.3d 1033, 1039-40 (1st Cir. 1996).
    2. In Petition for Review of Opinion 552, 507 A.2d 233 (N.J. 1986), the Supreme Court of New Jersey reviewed the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics ruling which barred an attorney from simultaneously representing a governmental entity and any of its officials when they are co-defendants in a Section 1983 action.

In a § 1983 suit against both the governmental entity and individual government officials, the governmental entity, in an effort to shift liability, may claim that the assertedly wrongful conduct of the individuals was unauthorized and outside the scope of the employment. Conversely, in his or her defense, an employee-defendant may claim that the alleged offending conduct was taken pursuant to an official governmental policy or directive and that the government entity is the party properly responsible and ultimately liable. Thus, under the defenses asserted or available, one party-defendant may seek to avoid or lessen its exposure at the expense of the other.

The Committee in Opinion 552 recognized that where a governmental official or employee has been named as a co-defendant in a § 1983 civil rights action against a municipality, the attorney who undertakes representation of both defendants may be in a situation of potential conflict. Indeed, the Committee was of the view that a potential conflict of interests was almost invariably present in these situations, and therefore such potential conflicts could be overcome effectively only by an absolute prohibition against multiple representations.

507 A.2d at 235.

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed that a conflict could be presented by joint representation. The Court found, however, that in certain circumstances an attorney could represent both the governmental entity and its official without any conflict of interest problems. No conflict would exist where the government entity conceded that the official acted in furtherance of official policy or where the entity is obligated to indemnify its officials for any damages. The Court expressed concern with the financial burden that would be imposed on municipalities if they automatically were forced to obtain independent counsel for employees, a burden which would be aggravated by the possibility that the plaintiffs would sue numerous officials to induce municipalities to settle in order to avoid the costs of separate counsel. The Court, therefore, modified the ethics committee’s opinion as follows:

In conclusion, we determine that the per se ban as formulated by the Committee, prohibiting joint representation of multiple defendants in all § 1983 civil-rights actions, is too broad. We rule that in situations in which there is no actual conflict of interests, or the likelihood of an actual conflict of interests is remote and poses no realistic threat to the effective representation of such multiple defendants, an attorney should not be prohibited from representing both parties. We rule further that in cases where there is a potential conflict of interests joint representation may be allowed, provided the guidelines of our current Rules of Professional Conduct are followed by the attorney furnishing such joint representation. Stated somewhat differently, we rule that in a § 1983 action, a government attorney is precluded from representing co-defendant government officers or employees only where the allegations or the facts as developed present an actual conflict of interests or the realistic possibility of such a conflict. If no such conflict is presented, then a government attorney may simultaneously represent as co-defendants governmental officers or employees and the government entity. The joint representation, however, is conditioned upon the continuing obligation of the attorney to ascertain whether there exist potential conflicts of interests among the defendants, and if, under the circumstances, such potential conflicting interests emerge that outweigh the mutuality or similarity of the interests among defendants, the attorney shall be obligated promptly to terminate such joint representation and initiate steps for the separate representation of the defendants.

507 A.2d at 240-41. See also M. Schwartz and J. Kirkland, Section 1983 Litigation: Claims, Defenses and Fees, § 4.13 (1986).


Share This Book