Oklahoma City v. Tuttle
Annotate this Case
471 U.S. 808 (1985)
U.S. Supreme Court
Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808 (1985)
City of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle
Argued January 8, 1985
Decided June 3, 1985
471 U.S. 808
An officer on petitioner city's police force shot and killed respondent's husband outside a bar in which a robbery had been reported in progress. Respondent brought suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the officer and petitioner, alleging that their actions had deprived her husband of certain constitutional rights. With respect to the liability of petitioner city, the trial judge informed the jury that petitioner could be held liable only if a municipal "policy" had caused the deprivation, and further instructed the jury that it could "infer," from
"a single, unusually excessive use of force . . . that it was attributable to inadequate training or supervision amounting to 'deliberate indifference' or 'gross negligence' on the part of the officials in charge."
The jury returned a verdict in favor of the officer but against petitioner, and awarded respondent damages. Rejecting petitioner's claim that the jury instruction was improper, the Court of Appeals held that proof of a single incident of unconstitutional activity by a police officer could suffice to establish municipal liability.
Held: The judgment is reversed.
728 F.2d 456, reversed.
JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II, concluding that, where the question was not raised until she mentioned it in her brief on the merits in this Court and later at oral argument, it was too late for respondent to argue that the jury instruction issue was not properly preserved because petitioner failed to object at trial to the instruction in question with sufficient specificity to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 51. Nonjurisdictional defects of this sort should be brought to the Court's attention no later than in respondent's brief in opposition; if not, it is within the Court's discretion to deem the defect waived. Pp. 471 U. S. 815-816.
JUSTICE REHNQUIST, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE O'CONNOR, delivered an opinion with respect to Part III, concluding that the instruction at issue improperly instructed the jury concerning the standard for imposing liability on municipalities under § 1983. The inference in the instruction was unwarranted in its assumption
that the act at issue arose from inadequate training and in its further assumption concerning the state of mind of the municipal policymakers. More importantly, the inference allowed a § 1983 plaintiff to establish municipal liability without submitting proof of a single action taken by a municipal policymaker. The requirement of Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U. S. 658, that municipal liability under § 1983 can only be imposed for injuries inflicted pursuant to government "policy or custom" makes it clear that, at the least, that requirement was intended to prevent the imposition of municipal liability under circumstances where no wrong could be ascribed to municipal decisionmakers. The fact that in this case respondent introduced independent evidence of inadequate training makes no difference, because the instruction allowed the jury to impose liability even if it did not believe respondent's expert witness' testimony that the police officer's training was inadequate. There must at the very least be an affirmative link between the municipality's policy and the particular constitutional violation alleged. Here, the jury instruction allowed the jury to infer a thoroughly nebulous "policy" of "inadequate training" on petitioner's part from the single incident in question, and at the same time sanctioned the inference that the "policy" was the cause of the incident. Pp. 471 U. S. 816-824.
JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concluded that to infer the existence of a city policy from the misconduct of a single, low-level officer, as the jury instruction here allowed, and then to hold the city liable on the basis of that policy, would amount to permitting precisely the theory of strict respondeat superior liability rejected in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, supra. There may be many ways of proving the existence of a municipal policy or custom that can cause a deprivation of a constitutional right, but the scope of § 1983 liability does not permit such liability to be imposed merely on evidence of the wrongful actions of a single city employee not authorized to make city policy. Pp. 471 U. S. 827-833.
REHNQUIST, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part III, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 471 U. S. 824. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 471 U. S. 834. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.