Jett v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist.
491 U.S. 701 (1989)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Jett v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 491 U.S. 701 (1989)

Jett v. Dallas Independent School District

No. 87-2084

Argued March 28, 1989

Decided June 22, 1989

491 U.S. 701

Syllabus

Petitioner Jett, a white male, was employed by respondent Dallas Independent School District (DISD) as a teacher, athletic director, and head football coach at a predominantly black high school. After repeated clashes with the school's Principal Todd, a black man, over school policies and Jett's handling of the school's football program, Todd recommended that Jett be relieved of his duties as athletic director and coach. The DISD's Superintendent Wright affirmed Todd's recommendation and reassigned Jett to a teaching position in another school, where he had no coaching duties. Alleging, inter alia, that Todd's recommendation was racially motivated, and that the DISD, acting through Todd and Wright, had discriminated against him on the basis of race in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 and the Equal Protection Clause, Jett brought this action in the District Court, which upheld a jury verdict in his favor on all counts. The Court of Appeals reversed in part and remanded, finding, among other things, that the District Court's jury instructions as to the DISD's liability under § 1983 were deficient, since (1) they did not make clear that, under Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services,436 U. S. 658, such liability could be predicated on the actions of Todd or Wright only if those officials had been delegated policymaking authority or acted pursuant to a well settled custom that represented official policy; and (2) even if Wright could be considered a policymaker for purposes of the transfer of personnel, the jury made no finding that his decision to transfer Jett was either improperly motivated or consciously indifferent to the improper motivations of Todd. The Court of Appeals also rejected the District Court's conclusion that the DISD's § 1981 liability for Todd's actions could be predicated on a respondeat superior theory, noting that Monell had held that Congress did not intend that municipalities be subject to vicarious liability under § 1983 for the federal constitutional or statutory violations of their employees, and declaring that to impose such liability for only certain wrongs based on § 1981 apparently would contravene the congressional intent behind § 1983.

Page 491 U. S. 702

Held: The judgment is affirmed in part, and the case is remanded. 798 F.2d 748 and 837 F.2d 1244, affirmed in part and remanded.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, III, and IV, concluding that:

1. A municipality may not be held liable for its employees' violations of § 1981 under a respondeat superior theory. The express "action at law" provided by § 1983 for the "deprivation of . . . rights secured by the Constitution and laws" provides the exclusive federal damages remedy for the violation of the rights guaranteed by § 1981 when the claim is pressed against a state actor. Cf., e.g., Brown v. GSA,425 U. S. 820, where the Court, in holding that § 717 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 constitutes the exclusive remedy for racial discrimination in federal employment despite the possibility of an implied damages remedy under § 1981, invoked the general principle that a precisely drawn, detailed statute preempts more general remedies. Monell, supra, specifically held that a municipality cannot be liable under § 1983 on a respondeat superior theory, while the Courts of Appeals in post-Monell decisions have unanimously rejected the contention, analogous to petitioner's argument here, that that theory is available against municipalities under a Bivens-type action implied directly from the Fourteenth Amendment. Given this Court's repeated recognition that the Fourteenth Amendment was largely intended to embody and expand the protections of § 1981's statutory predecessor as against state actors, this Court declines petitioner's invitation to imply a damages remedy broader than § 1983 from § 1981's declaration of rights. Creation of such a remedy would allow § 1983's carefully crafted remedial scheme to be circumvented by artful pleading. Nor can a respondeat superior standard be implied from 42 U.S.C. § 1988, since, although that statute does authorize district courts in civil rights actions to look to the common law if federal remedies are deficient, the statute specifically withdraws that authority where, as here, the common law remedy is inconsistent with federal law; i.e., with § 1983. See Moor v. County of Alameda,411 U. S. 693, 411 U. S. 706, 411 U. S. 710, n. 27. Thus, to prevail against the DISD, petitioner must show that the violation of his § 1981 "right to make contracts" was caused by a custom or policy within the meaning of Monell and subsequent cases. Pp. 491 U. S. 731-736.

2. These cases are remanded to the Court of Appeals to determine whether, in light of the principles enunciated in Monell, supra, and clarified in Pembaur v. Cincinnati,475 U. S. 469, and St. Louis v. Praprotnik,485 U. S. 112, Superintendent Wright possessed final policymaking authority under Texas law in the area of employee transfers, and if so, whether a new trial is required to determine the DISD's responsibility for the actions of Principal Todd in light of this determination. Although the Court of Appeals correctly ruled that the District Court's

Page 491 U. S. 703

jury instructions constituted manifest error, the case was tried before Pembaur and Praprotnik were decided, and the Court of Appeals issued its decision before Praprotnik. Pp. 491 U. S. 736-738.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE KENNEDY, concluded in Part II that the text and legislative history of both the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the precursors of §§ 1981 and 1983, respectively, demonstrate that § 1981 does not provide an independent federal damages remedy for racial discrimination by local governmental entities; rather, Congress intended that the explicit remedial provisions of § 1983 control in the context of § 1981 damages actions against state actors.

(a) The legislative history of the 1866 Act, which was originally enacted to implement the Thirteenth Amendment, demonstrates that that Act neither provided an express damages remedy for violation of its provisions nor created any original federal jurisdiction which could support such a remedy against state actors, and that the Act's penal section -- the only provision explicitly directed at state officials -- was designed to punish only the official committing a violation and not the municipality itself. Two congressional actions subsequent to the passage of the 1866 Act -- the submission of the Fourteenth Amendment to the States for ratification, which Amendment was based upon, and widely viewed as "constitutionalizing," that Act's protections, and the reenactment of that Act's substance in the Enforcement Act of 1870, a Fourteenth Amendment statute -- further evidence the relationship between §§ 1981 and 1983 and demonstrate that § 1981 is both a Thirteenth and a Fourteenth Amendment statute. Pp. 491 U. S. 713-722.

(b) The text and legislative history of the 1871 Act, which was expressly enacted to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, establish that: (1) unlike any portion of the 1866 Act, that statute explicitly exposed state and local officials to liability for damages in a newly created "action at law" for deprivation of constitutional rights; (2) the Act expanded federal jurisdiction by explicitly providing original jurisdiction in the federal courts for prosecution of such actions; and (3) the provision of the Act which is now § 1983 was explicitly modeled on the penal provision of the 1866 Act, and was intended to amend and enhance the protections of that provision by providing a parallel civil remedy for the same violations. Thus, Jett's contention that the 1866 Act had already created a broader federal damages remedy against state actors is unpersuasive. Moreover, the fact that Congress rejected the Sherman amendment to the 1871 Act -- which specifically proposed the imposition of vicarious liability on municipal governments for injuries caused by mob violence directed at the enjoyment or exercise of federal civil rights -- demonstrates an awareness of, and a desire to comply with, the then-reigning constitutional

Page 491 U. S. 704

doctrine of "dual sovereignty," which indicated that Congress did not have the power to assign the duty to enforce federal law to state instrumentalities by making them liable for the constitutional violations of others. Given this constitutional background, Jett's contention that the 1866 Act had already silently created a form of vicarious liability against municipal governments is historically untenable. Furthermore, the addition, in 1874, of the phrase "and laws" to the remedial provision of what is now § 1983 indicates an intent that the guarantees contained in what is now § 1981 were to be enforced against state actors through § 1983's express damages remedy. Pp. 491 U. S. 722-731.

JUSTICE SCALIA concluded that the respondeat superior question is properly decided solely on the rudimentary principles of construction that the specific -- here, § 1983, which precludes liability on that basis for the precise category of offense at issue -- governs the general -- here, § 1981 -- and that, where the text permits, statutes dealing with similar subjects should be interpreted harmoniously. Pp. 491 U. S. 738-739.

O'CONNOR, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and IV, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined; the opinion of the Court with respect to Part III, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, and in which SCALIA, J., joined, except insofar as that Part relies on legislative history; and an opinion with respect to Part II, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 491 U. S. 738. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 491 U. S. 739. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 491 U. S. 753.

Page 491 U. S. 705

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