What Is a Monell Claim ?
Entity liability may arise in one of two forms. The municipality may itself have directed the deprivation of federal rights through an express government policy.
This was the situation in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services (1978) 436 U.S. 658, where there was an explicit policy requiring pregnant government employees to take unpaid leaves of absence before such leaves were medically required. (See also Pembaur v. Cincinnati (1986) 475 U.S. 469 county prosecutor, acting as the county's final decision maker, directed deputies to unlawfully enter petitioner's place of business.)
The Monell doctrine "has produced a body of law that is neither readily understood nor easy to apply. . . . . . . This makes it difficult for municipalities to predict just when they will be held liable based upon 'policy or custom.' " (Bryan Cty. v. Brown (1997) 520 U.S. 397, at pp. 433, (dis. opn. of Breyer, J.).)
If there is any pattern to Monell decisional law, it is a crazy quilt. (Hamilton, The Importance and Overuse of Policy and Custom Claims: A View from One Trench (1999) 48 DePaul L.Rev. 723, 728 (Hamilton) "We are not dealing here with a rationally designed system of legal doctrines".)
Three Supreme Court justices have suggested jettisoning Monell for respondeat superior. (Bryan County, supra, 520 U.S. at p. 431 dis. opn. of Breyer, J.)
Justice Breyer cited the fact that many states (like California) have statutes that "in effect, mimic respondeat superior by authorizing indemnification of employees found liable under 1983 for actions within the scope of their employment." ( Id. at p. 436 117 S. Ct. at p. 1404.)
To the extent that such statutes provide for payments from entities rather than individuals, "reliance upon the continuation of Monell's 'policy' limitation loses much of its significance." (Ibid.)
The Supreme Court has expressed its disinclination to issue advisory decisions on Monell.
Most notably, in City of Los Angeles v. Heller (1986) 475 U.S. 796 at page 1573, the court refused to permit an abstract trial on the constitutionality of the use of a carotid chokehold by the Los Angeles Police Department.
The plaintiff in Heller was injured during a drunk-driving stop when the arresting officer attempted to place him in such a chokehold.
Reversing the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court ordered the Monell claim dismissed because the jury determined that a constitutional violation had not occurred. Once this issue was removed from the case, "the fact that the departmental regulations might have authorized the use of constitutionally excessive force is quite beside the point." (Ibid..)
A number of federal courts have applied the Heller rationale to the instant scenario. In such situations, an additional Monell trial "has little, probably no, practical significance. . . . Since the City indemnifies its employees for damage awards made against them in respect of the torts they commit in the course of their employment, plaintiff will collect his judgment in full whether or not the City is held liable." ( Jones v. City of Chicago (7th Cir. 1988) 856 F.2d 985, 995; see also Sanchez v. City of Riverside (C.D.Cal. 1984) 596 F. Supp. 193, 195 "The issues of 'government custom' and negligent supervision have been rendered hypothetical by . . . the City's recognition of its obligation under state law to pay the judgment"; see also Hamilton, The Importance and Overuse of Policy and Custom Claims: A View from One Trench (1999) 48 DePaul L.Rev. 723 at p. 730.)
In George v. City of Long Beach (9th Cir. 1992) 973 F.2d 706, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of an arrestee's Monell claim against a municipal police department after the officers had been found to have violated his constitutional rights during a warrantless "no knock" entry.
The arrestee argued he was entitled to a Monell trial on the "symbolic" issue of his right to recover nominal damages for the municipality's pattern or practice of condoning constitutional violations and poorly training its police officers. Finding the error (if any) to be harmless, George held the following: "Any damages resulting from a possible Monell claim would result from the same constitutional violation of the warrantless arrest which resulted in nominal damages. Even if George were to prove the City failed to adequately train the police officers, the result would simply be another theory of action concerning the conduct . . . . George's recovery, if any, based upon a Monell claim would be limited to nominal damages. We therefore hold that any error by the district court in dismissing the Monell claim was harmless." (George, at p. 709, italics added.)
There are several contrary opinions.
In Amato v. City of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (2d Cir. 1999) 170 F.3d 311, the Second Circuit remanded an excessive force case for a new trial on Monell "to seek symbolic vindication from the municipality as well as the individual official for violation of constitutional rights," even though the plaintiff's recovery would be limited to nominal damages. ( Id. at p. 321.)
And in Ruvalcaba v. City of Los Angeles (9th Cir. 1999) 167 F.3d 514, a plaintiff appealed from the dismissal of his Monell claim after the jury determined he was entitled to $ 60,400 in compensatory damages because of a police officer's use of excessive force in making an arrest.
The appeals court agreed, holding the arrestee "may still recover nominal damages for a 'separate and distinct constitutional wrong' irrespective of whether he is entitled to actual damages for that wrong." ( Id. at p. 524.)
The court did not identify that "separate and distinct" wrong, and it did not mention George or attempt to reconcile the conflict.