Jefferson v. City of Tarrant

PETITIONER: Jefferson, Individually And As Administrator Of The Estate Of Jefferson, Deceased, et al.
RESPONDENT: City of Tarrant
LOCATION: United States Department of State

DOCKET NO.: 96-957
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Alabama

CITATION: 522 US 75 (1997)
ARGUED: Nov 04, 1997
DECIDED: Dec 09, 1997

John G. Roberts, Jr. - for respondent
Dennis G. Pantazis - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case

Alberta Jefferson, an African American woman, died as a result of a fire in her home in the city of Tarrant, Alabama. Her survivors filed multiple complaints against Tarrant City: two under state law and two under federal law. The state law complaints alleged wrongful death and the common-law tort of outrage, while the two federal claims brought under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 alleged that Ms. Jefferson's death was the direct result of indifference and racial discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. The City claimed that the complaints were governed by Alabama's Wrongful Death Act, which the Alabama Supreme Court had interpreted to provide only for punitive damages. The City then argued that it could not be sued under Section 1983 because the Supreme Court had ruled that Section 1983 plaintiffs are not entitled to sue a municipality for punitive damages.

The state court ruled in favor of Jefferson, but the Alabama Supreme Court reversed and sent the case back to the state court after determining that the state Act did in fact govern the claims. The Supreme Court agreed to consider the federal complaints. The City contended that the Court lacked jurisdiction over the Alabama Supreme Court's order because the case was not yet final.


Are federal claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 governed by the Alabama Wrongful Death Act?

Media for Jefferson v. City of Tarrant

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 04, 1997 in Jefferson v. City of Tarrant

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-957, Melvin Jefferson v. The City of Tarrant, Alabama.

Mr. Pantazis.

Dennis G. Pantazis:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The supreme court of Alabama has held there is no section 42 U.S.C. section 1983 claim for a cause of action if the victim dies from the perpetration of the act.

The issue before this Court is, when the decedent's death results from the deprivation of a Federal right occurring in Alabama, does the Wrongful Death Act govern the recovery of the decedent's estate?

David H. Souter:

Are you going to address the jurisdictional issue?

Dennis G. Pantazis:

I will, if... Your Honor.

David H. Souter:

I think you should.

Dennis G. Pantazis:

The Federal issue has been totally adjudicated by the supreme court of Alabama, and under the Cox case this Court has held an exception, or held that jurisdiction is found where there's no further Federal issue to be adjudicated and cannot be adjudicated at the lower court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

But the Federal issue could become academic if you go back and on the State claim there's a determination that there was no wrongful conduct on the part of the city.

Dennis G. Pantazis:

Under... in Cox it's my understanding, Your Honor, is that the Court held this exception: where the Federal claim has been finally decided and with further proceeding on the merits in the State court to come, but that which later review of the Federal issue cannot be had, whatever the ultimate outcome of the case.

That was the third exception.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

But here you could conceivably, if you should prevail on the State claim you could then bring up that you should also have had a 1983 claim.

Dennis G. Pantazis:

I don't believe so.

I think the supreme court of Alabama has already adjudicated that in this particular case.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

And they would then say, it's law of the case, and so we deny... in dealing with the appeal you would have a final disposition, and you could come here again.

In that respect it's different from Cox v. Cohn.

Dennis G. Pantazis:

I think it is different, but I think the rational of Cox is, looking at this particular issue, this Court... the Alabama supreme court has adjudicated it to the fullest degree under the Federal issue.

Antonin Scalia:

The issue isn't whether they have adjudicated it finally and will not come back to it.

You're quite right that they wouldn't come back to it.

The issue is whether we could pick it up later on, after they simply say, it's law of the case, there is no Federal cause of action.

At that point you have a final judgment, the whole thing has been dismissed, and you could come here.

Is there some reason why you couldn't come here?

Dennis G. Pantazis:

It would require duplication in trying the case twice, and I think that's part of the rationale that Cox looked at.

Antonin Scalia:


Well, that may well be, but we're bound by the Federal statute, which says that the case has to be finally decided by the highest court of the State, finally decided, and the highest court of the State is going to have this case back again, or may well have the case back again on the State law claims, no?

Dennis G. Pantazis:

It could, but the problem, Your Honor, is that the third element in Cox specifically, I think, addressed that rationale.

It said that the Federal claim was adjudicated in the Federal... in the State court.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

But it says where further Federal... it says, but in which later review of the Federal issue cannot be had, and under the law of the case, Alabama could conceivably change its mind if there were some intervening decision, perhaps by the Eleventh Circuit.

Probably it won't, but nevertheless, you can't say, in which later review of the Federal issue cannot be had.