Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York

PETITIONER:Jane Monell, et al.
RESPONDENT:Department of Social Services of the City of New York, et al.
LOCATION:Department of Social Services of the City of New York

DOCKET NO.: 75-1914
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 436 US 658 (1978)
ARGUED: Nov 02, 1977
DECIDED: Jun 06, 1978
GRANTED: Jan 25, 1977

L. Kevin Sheridan – for respondents
Oscar Chase – for petitioners

Facts of the case

The petitioners, a class of female employees of the Department of Social Services and the Board of Education of the City of New York, sued their employers for depriving them of their constitutional rights. The employers required pregnant women to take unpaid leaves of absence before there was any medical reason to do so. The plaintiffs sought an injunction against the forced leaves of absence in the future, as well as back pay for those that had already occurred.

The district court found that such policies were unconstitutional but held that the city had immunity from paying the back wages. The district court also held that the motion for an injunction was moot because the organizations removed the policy in the intervening time. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


If sued in their official capacity, are local government officials and organizations such as a school board considered “persons” for the purpose of liability for back wages?

Media for Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 02, 1977 in Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 06, 1978 in Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

The other case, 75-1914, Monell versus the Department of Social Services, is here on certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Section 1983 of 42 United States Code which originated a 107 years ago, as Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, makes liable in damages and to injunctive release and I quote “every person who under cover of any statute, ordinance, regulation, customer usage of any state or territory, subjects or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof, to the deprivation of any rights, privileges or immunities, secured by the Constitution and laws.”

Now that remedy is available to any citizen injured in violation of its terms and words of its congressional sponsor in 1971, that Act, “not only provides a civil remedy for persons whose former condition may have been that of slaves, but also to all people where, under color of State law, they or any of them may be deprived of rights to which they are entitled under the Constitution by reason and virtue of their national citizenship.”

And this case presents the question, whether the remedy is available against school boards, municipalities, and other local government bodies and the answer to that question turns on whether such local bodies are persons within the term, every person made liable by the section.

And this suit was brought by employees of the New York City Board of Education against the Board, the City of New York, and various board and city officials sued in their official capacities.

The District Court for the Southern District of New York, affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, held that the employees’ constitutional rights had indeed been violated by the Board, by the city and by the named officials, but nevertheless dismissed the employee’s suit.

The two courts held that the Board and the city were not persons, within the meeting of the term every person, and therefore, were not suable under Section 1983.

The two courts held further that although the individual officials were persons, the claims for damages against them must also be denied because such damages would have ultimately to be paid by the City of New York, and therefore, to allow the damages against the officials would be to circumvent the holding the city was not a person suable under the statute.

Now, this holding of the two courts, that the city and the Board were not suable persons, rested on a decision of this Court, a decision 17 years ago in a case styled Monroe versus Pape, reported in 365, United States.

That was a suite under Section 1983, against the City of Chicago and thirteen of its police officers.

The complaint alleged that the thirteen police officers without a warrant broke in the plaintiff’s home in the early morning, routed them from bed, made them stand naked in the living room and ransacked every room, emptying drawers and lifting mattress covers.

Although, holding that the complaint alleged facts constituting a deprivation under cover of state authority of a right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court held that the action as against the City of Chicago must be dismissed, stating and I quote from the opinion, “we are of the opinion that Congress did not undertake to bring municipal corporations within the ambit of Section 1983.”

Now that conclusion was rested upon a reading of the extensive legislative debate that ensued in 1871 when Senator Sherman of Ohio introduced an amendment to the post Civil Rights Act of 1871, but significantly not an amendment to the Section 1 now 1983, but rather an amendment which would have become a new Section 7 of the 1871 Act and that amendment would have made the inhabitance of the county, city or a perish in which certain acts of violence occurred liable to pay full compensation to the person damaged, or his widow or legal representative.

That amendment failed of passage and this Court in Monroe v. Pape inferred from that failure that Congress feared that the statute might be unconstitutional, if applied to local governments.

Therefore the Court said and I quote again from Monroe and Pape, “the response of the Congress to the proposal to make municipalities liable for certain actions being brought within federal preview by the Act of 1871 was so antagonistic that we cannot believe that word person was used in this particular Act to include them.”

Though we have reexamined the debates over the 1871 Act and are satisfied that Monroe and Pape’s holding, that Congress excluded municipalities from the word person in Section 1, now Section 1983 was wrong.

Our opinion includes an extensive fresh analysis of the debates in stating our reasons for the conclusion that Monroe and Pape erred in that prospect.

Those reasons will not be further discussed now.

It’s suffice it to say that our reexamination brings us to the conclusion that Congress in 1871 would not have thought Section 1 constitutionally affirmed, infirmed that it applied to local governments.

Indeed, the history rather confirms that local governments were intended to be included among the persons to which 1983 applies.

Accordingly, Monroe v. Pape is overruled insofar as it holds that local governments are not persons within the term every person in Section 1983.

Local governing bodies and the local officials sued in their official capacities can, therefore, we hold, be sued directly under Section 1983 for monetary, declaratory, and injunctive relief and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore reversed.

But our opinion goes on to consider what must be proved to hold local governments and the such officials liable.

First we hold that they can not be held liable on a respondeat superior theory, that is be held liable solely because the local government body employee is the person who causes the plaintiff’s harm.

For example, a person injured when a city’s trash truck driven by a city employee on a city business runs him down, even intentionally, doesn’t have a case against the City under Section 1983 merely because the driver was a city employee.

We hold that local government units can be liable under the Section 1983 only when it is pleaded and proved as it was in this case, that the action alleged to be unconstitutional, implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that unit’s officers.

However, although the touchstone of this Section 1983 action against the government body was an allegation that official policy is responsible for a deprivation of rights protected by the Constitution.

The local governments like every other Section 1983 person by the very terms of the statute, may also be sued for constitutional deprivations visited pursuant to governmental “custom” even though such a custom has not received formal approval through the body’s official decision-making channels.

Congress included custom and usage expressly, in Section 1983 because of persistent and wide spread discriminatory practices of State officials, practices which although are not authorized by written law, could well be be so permanent and well settled as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law. And I should also emphasize that our opinion makes clear that we do not address the today what the full contours of municipal liability under Section 1983 may be.

We have attempted only to sketch so much of the Section 1983 cause of action against local governments, as is apparent from the history the 1871 Act and our prior cases and we expressly leave further development of this action to another day.

For example, since the question was whether the local government bodies should be afforded some force of official — some form rather of official immunity was not presented as a question to be decided in the petition in this case, and was not reached by the parties nor addressed by the courts below, we express no views on the scope of any municipal immunity beyond holding that, municipal body suit under Section 1983 are not entitled to an absolute immunity that’s necessarily so, unless today’s decision that such parties are subject to suit under Section 1983 be drained of meaning.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Mr. Justice Steven joins parts one, three and five of Court’s opinion and has filed a concurring opinion.

Mr. Justice Rehnquist dissents and joined by the Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Brennan.