Board of Comm'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown
520 U.S. 397 (1997)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1996

Syllabus

BOARD OF THE COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF BRYAN COUNTY, OKLAHOMA v. BROWN ET AL.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

No. 95-1100. Argued November 5, 1996-Decided April 28, 1997

Jill Brown (hereinafter respondent) brought this 42 U. S. C. § 1983 damages action against petitioner county, alleging, among other things, that its Deputy Burns had arrested her with excessive force, and that it was liable for her injuries because its Sheriff Moore had hired Burns without adequately reviewing his background. Burns had pleaded guilty to various driving infractions and other misdemeanors, including assault and battery. Moore, whom the county stipulated was its Sheriff's Department policymaker, testified that he had obtained Burns' driving and criminal records, but had not closely reviewed either before hiring Burns. The District Court denied the county's motions for judgment as a matter of law, which asserted that a policymaker's single hiring decision could not give rise to § 1983 municipal liability. Respondent prevailed following a jury trial, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that the county was properly found liable based on Moore's decision to hire Burns.

Held: The county is not liable for Sheriff Moore's isolated decision to hire Burns without adequate screening, because respondent has not demonstrated that the decision reflected a conscious disregard for a high risk that Burns would use excessive force in violation of respondent's federally protected right. Pp. 402-416.

(a) A municipality may not be held liable under § 1983 solely because it employs a tortfeasor, see, e. g., Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U. S. 658, 692. Instead, the plaintiff must identify a municipal "policy" or "custom" that caused the injury. See, e. g., Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U. S. 469, 480-481. Contrary to respondent's contention, a "policy" giving rise to liability cannot be established merely by identifying a policymaker's conduct that is properly attributable to the municipality. The plaintiff must also demonstrate that, through its deliberate conduct, the municipality was the "moving force" behind the injury alleged. See Monell, supra, at 694. That is, a plaintiff must show that the municipal action was taken with the requisite degree of culpability and must demonstrate a direct causal link between the municipal action and the deprivation of federal rights. pp. 402-404.


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(b) Respondent's claim that a policymaker's single facially lawful hiring decision can trigger municipal liability presents difficult problems of proof. This Court has recognized a § 1983 cause of action based on a single decision attributable to a municipality only where the evidence that the municipality had acted and that the plaintiff had suffered a deprivation of federal rights also proved fault and causation. See, e. g., Pembaur, supra, at 481. In relying heavily on Pembaur, respondent blurs the distinction between § 1983 cases that present no difficult fault and causation questions and those that do. Claims such as the present, which do not involve an allegation that the municipal action itself violated federal law or directed or authorized the deprivation of federal rights, require application of rigorous culpability and causation standards in order to ensure that the municipality is not held liable solely for its employees' actions. In Canton v. Harris, 489 U. S. 378, for example, the Court held that a plaintiff seeking to establish municipal liability on the theory that a facially lawful municipal action-there, an allegedly inadequate training program-has led an employee to violate a plaintiff's rights must demonstrate that the municipal action was not simply negligent, but was taken with "deliberate indifference" as to its known or obvious consequences. Id., at 388. Respondent's reliance on Canton for an analogy between failure-to-train cases and inadequate screening cases is not persuasive. In leaving open the possibility that municipal liability could be triggered by evidence of a single violation of federal rights, accompanied by a showing that the municipality has failed to train its employees to handle recurring situations presenting an obvious potential for such a violation, id., at 390, and n. 10, the Canton Court simply hypothesized that, in this narrow range of circumstances, the violation may be a highly predictable consequence of the failure to train and thereby justify a finding of "deliberate indifference" by policymakers. Predicting the consequence of a single hiring decision, even one based on an inadequate assessment of a record, is far more difficult. Only where adequate scrutiny of the applicant's background would lead a reasonable policymaker to conclude that the plainly obvious consequence of the decision to hire the applicant would be the deprivation of a third party's federally protected right can the official's failure to adequately scrutinize the applicant's background constitute "deliberate indifference." Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals directly tested whether Burns' background made his use of excessive force in making an arrest a plainly obvious consequence of the hiring decision. Pp. 404-412.

(c) Even assuming without deciding that proof of a single instance of inadequate screening could ever trigger municipal liability, Moore's failure to scrutinize Burns' record cannot constitute "deliberate indiffer-


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Full Text of Opinion

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