Polk County v. Dodson
454 U.S. 312 (1981)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312 (1981)

Polk County v. Dodson

No. 80-824

Argued October 13, 1981

Decided December 14, 1981

454 U.S. 312

Syllabus

Respondent brought suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against petitioners Polk County, its Offender Advocate, its Board of Supervisors, and Martha Shepard, an attorney in the Offender Advocate's Office. As the factual basis for his lawsuit, respondent alleged that Shepard, who had been assigned to represent him in an appeal of a criminal conviction to the Iowa Supreme Court, failed to represent him adequately, since she had moved for permission to withdraw as counsel on the ground that respondent's claims were legally frivolous. The Iowa Supreme Court granted Shepard's motion and dismissed respondent's appeal. In the District Court, respondent alleged that Shepard's actions violated certain of his constitutional rights. To establish that Shepard acted "under color of state law," a jurisdictional requisite for a § 1983 action, respondent relied on her employment by the county. The District Court dismissed the claims against all of the petitioners, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

Held:

1. A public defender does not act "under color of state law" when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to an indigent defendant in a state criminal proceeding. Because it was based on such activities, the complaint against Shepard must be dismissed. Pp. 454 U. S. 317-325.

(a) From the moment of Shepard's assignment to represent respondent, their relationship became identical to that existing between any other lawyer and client, except for the source of Shepard's payment. The legal system posits that a defense lawyer best serves the public not by acting on the State's behalf or in concert with it, but rather by advancing the undivided interests of the client. This is essentially a private function for which state office and authority are not needed. Pp. 454 U. S. 317-319.

(b) Cases in which this Court assumed that state-employed doctors serving in supervisory capacities at state institutions could be held liable under § 1983 are not controlling. O'Connor v. Donaldson,422 U. S. 563, and Estelle v. Gamble,429 U. S. 97, distinguished. Pp. 454 U. S. 319-320.

(c) Although the employment relationship between the State and a public defender is a relevant factor, it is insufficient to establish that a

Page 454 U. S. 313

public defender acts under color of state law within the meaning of § 1983. A public defender is not amenable to administrative direction in the same sense as other state employees. And equally important, it is the State's constitutional obligation to respect the professional independence of the public defenders whom it engages. Pp. 454 U. S. 320-322.

(d) It is the ethical obligation of any lawyer -- whether privately retained or publicly appointed -- not to clog the courts with frivolous motions or appeals. Respondent has no legitimate complaint that Shepard failed to prosecute a frivolous appeal on his behalf. Pp. 454 U. S. 322-324.

2. Respondent has not alleged unconstitutional action by Polk County, its Offender Advocate, or its Board of Supervisors. To the extent that his claims rest on a respondeat superior theory of liability, they fail to present a claim under 1983. And a constitutional tort actionable under § 1983 is not described by the bald allegations that Shepard had injured respondent while acting pursuant to administrative rules and procedures, and that the county "retains and maintains, advocates out of law school" who have on numerous occasions moved to withdraw from appeals of convictions. Respondent failed to allege any administrative policy that arguably caused a violation of his rights under the Sixth, Eighth, or Fourteenth Amendments. An official,policy of withdrawal from frivolous cases would not violate the Constitution. Pp. 454 U. S. 325-327.

628 F.2d 1104, reversed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 454 U. S. 327. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 454 U. S. 328.

Page 454 U. S. 314

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