MONELL V. DEPARTMENT OF SOC. SVCS., 436 U. S. 658 (1978)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Monell v. Department of Soc. Svcs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978)

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

No. 75-1914

Argued November 2, 1977

Decided June 6, 1978

436 U.S. 658


Petitioners, female employees of the Department of Social Services and the Board of Education of the city of New York, brought this class action against the Department and its Commissioner, the Board and its Chancellor, and the city of New York and its Mayor under 42 U.S.C. § 19&3, which provides that every "person" who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State subjects, or "causes to be subjected," any person to the deprivation of any federally protected rights, privileges, or immunities shall be civilly liable to the injured party. In each case, the individual defendants were sued solely in their official capacities. The gravamen of the complaint was that the Board and the Department had, as a matter of official policy, compelled pregnant employees to take unpaid leaves of absence before such leaves were required for medical reasons. The District Court found that petitioners' constitutional rights had been violated, but held that petitioners' claims for injunctive relief were mooted by a supervening change in the official maternity leave policy. That court further held that Monroe v. Pape, 365 U. S. 167, barred recovery of backpay from the Department, the Board, and the city. In addition, to avoid circumvention of the immunity conferred by Monroe, the District Court held that natural persons sued in their official capacities as officers of a local government also enjoy the immunity conferred on local governments by that decision. The Court of Appeals affirmed on a similar theory.


1. In Monroe v. Pape, supra, after examining the legislative history of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, now codified as 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and particularly the rejection of the so-called Sherman amendment, the Court held that Congress, in 1871, doubted its constitutional authority to impose civil liability on municipalities, and therefore could not have intended to include municipal bodies within the class of "persons" subject to the Act. Reexamination of this legislative history compels the conclusion that Congress, in 1871, would not have thought § 1983 constitutionally infirm if it applied to local governments. In addition, that history confirms that local governments were intended to be included

Page 436 U. S. 659

among the "persons" to which § 1983 applies. Accordingly, Monroe v. Pape is overruled insofar as it holds that local governments are wholly immune from suit under § 1983. Pp. 436 U. S. 664-689.

2. Local governing bodies (and local officials sued in their official capacities) can, therefore, be sued directly under § 1983 for monetary, declaratory, and injunctive relief in those situations where, as here, the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted or promulgated by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy. In addition, local governments, like every other § 1983 "person," may be sued for constitutional deprivations visited pursuant to governmental "custom" even though such custom has not received formal approval through the government's official decisionmaking channels. Pp. 436 U. S. 690-691.

3. On the other hand, the language and legislative history of § 1983 compel the conclusion that Congress did not intend a local government to be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor -- in other words, a local government cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a respondeat superior theory. Pp. 436 U. S. 691-695.

4. Considerations of stare decisis do not counsel against overruling Monroe v. Pape insofar as it is inconsistent with this opinion. Pp. 436 U. S. 695-701.

(a) Monroe v. Pape departed from prior practice insofar as it completely immunized municipalities from suit under § 1983. Moreover, since the reasoning of Monroe does not allow a distinction to be drawn between municipalities and school boards, this Court's many cases holding school boards liable in § 1983 actions are inconsistent with Monroe, especially as the principle of that case was extended to suits for injunctive relief in City of Kenosha v. Bruno, 412 U. S. 507. Pp. 436 U. S. 695-696.

(b) Similarly, extending absolute immunity to school boards would be inconsistent with several instances in which Congress has refused to immunize school boards from federal jurisdiction under § 1983. Pp. 436 U. S. 696-699.

(c) In addition, municipalities cannot have arranged their affairs on an assumption that they can violate constitutional rights for an indefinite period; accordingly, municipalities have no reliance interest that would support an absolute immunity. Pp. 436 U. S. 699-700.

(d) Finally, it appears beyond doubt from the legislative history of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 that Monroe misapprehended the meaning of the Act. Were § 1983 unconstitutional as to local governments, it would have been equally unconstitutional as to state or local officers,

Page 436 U. S. 660

yet the 1871 Congress clearly intended § 1983 to apply to such officers and all agreed that such officers could constitutionally be subjected to liability under § 1983. The Act also unquestionably was intended to provide a remedy, to be broadly construed, against all forms of official violation of federally protected rights. Therefore, without a clear statement in the legislative history, which is not present, there is no justification for excluding municipalities from the "persons" covered by § 1983. Pp 436 U. S. 700-701.

5. Local governments sued under § 1983 cannot be entitled to an absolute immunity, lest today's decision "be drained of meaning," Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U. S. 232, 416 U. S. 248. P. 436 U. S. 701.

532 F.2d 259, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, III, and V of which STEVENS, J., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 436 U. S. 704. STEVENS, J., filed a statement concurring in part, post, p. 436 U. S. 714. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,joined, post, p. 436 U. S. 714.

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