Board of Comm'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown

PETITIONER: Board of Comm'rs of Bryan Cty.
RESPONDENT: Brown
LOCATION: Camp Newfound Owatonna

DOCKET NO.: 95-1100
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 397 (1997)
ARGUED: Nov 05, 1996
DECIDED: Apr 28, 1997

ADVOCATES:
Brian Serr - Texas, argued the cause for the respondents
Wallace B. Jefferson - Texas, argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Jill Brown brought a damages action against Bryan County alleging that that its Deputy Stacy Burns had arrested her with excessive force, and that it was liable for her injuries because its Sheriff B. J. Moore had hired Burns without adequately reviewing his background. Burns had pleaded guilty to various driving infractions and other misdemeanors, including assault and battery. Moore, whom the county stipulated was its Sheriff's Department policymaker, testified that he had obtained Burns' driving and criminal records, but had not closely reviewed either before hiring Burns. The District Court denied the county's motions for judgment as a matter of law, which asserted that a policymaker's single hiring decision could not give rise to municipal liability. Brown prevailed following a jury trial, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the county was properly found liable based on Moore's decision to hire Burns.

Question

May municipalities be held liable for hiring employees who injure someone?

Media for Board of Comm'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 05, 1996 in Board of Comm'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 28, 1997 in Board of Comm'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown

The opinion of the Court in No. 95-1100, Board of The County Commissioners of Bryan County, Oklahoma versus Brown will be announced by Justice O'Connor.

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The respondent, Jill Brown brought an action for damages against Bryan County under 42 United States Code Section 1983.

She claimed that a county deputy -- County Deputy Sheriff used excessive force in arresting her causing injuries and that the county itself was liable for her injuries because its sheriff had hired the deputy without adequately reviewing his background before hiring him.

The deputy's background revealed a series of traffic violations and a misdemeanor conviction or assault arising from a fight when he was attending college.

Respondent Brown won after a jury trial and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

We vacate the judgment below and remand the case for further proceedings.

We have repeatedly held that a municipality may not be held liable under Section 1983 solely because it employs a tortfeasor, rather a plaintiff has to identify a municipal policy or custom deliberately chosen by the municipality.

That is the moving force behind the injury.

The Sheriff's hiring decision here was itself legal and it did not authorize the deputy to use excessive force in making arrests.

Brown's claim is that a single facially lawful hiring decision can launch a series of events that ultimately cause a violation of federal rights.

Such a theory presents difficult problems of proof because there is a high risk that the county will be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor, not because its hiring decision directly caused the tort.

In the context of an inadequate training claim, we have held that a municipality can only be held liable for facially lawful decision if the decision was made with deliberate indifference to its known or obvious consequences.

Even assuming that a single instance of inadequate screening of a perspective employee could ever trigger municipal liability.

We hold that the Sheriff's hiring decision in this case was not made with deliberate indifference.

The Sheriff's action would have been deliberately indifferent in that sense only if the Deputy's use of excessive force against the person being arrested was a known or obvious consequence of the hiring decision.

The deputy here may have been a poor prospect for hire, but that is not because his eventual use of excessive force would have been a plainly obvious consequence of the decision to hire him.

Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals directly asked whether the deputy's background made his use of excessive force a plainly obvious consequence of the Sheriff's hiring decision.

We hold that the District Court erred in submitting the inadequate screening theory to the jury.

Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer joined.

Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg have joined.