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Opinion analysis: Tying up a loose end in civil rights enforcement

A unanimous Court last week (with Justice Kagan recused) issued a surprisingly brief, even curt, ruling on municipal liability for civil rights violations.  The opinion in Los Angeles County v. Humphries came down less than two months after oral argument and is notable for its unusually straightforward and clear analysis.  As the Roberts Court comes under increasing fire for what some describe as overly long, fractured, and confusing rulings, Humphries is a stand-out:  a model of simplicity, clarity, and judicial minimalism.

The case involved Los Angeles County’s enforcement of the California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.  Under the Act and in response to allegations of abuse, a county officer listed two parents, the Humphries, on the state’s Child Abuse Central Index.  (The Index is available to various state and local agencies, which use it for background investigations for employment, child-care licensing, and adoption.)  The parents were later exonerated and sought to have their names removed.  But the Act did not provide for, and the county did not adopt, a procedure for removal.  They thus remained on the Index.

The Humphries sued the state, the county, and various officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of their procedural due process rights.  They sought declaratory relief, an injunction ordering their removal from the Index, and damages.  (Claims against individual officers were dismissed.)  The Ninth Circuit ruled in their favor, holding that the Humphries were entitled to declaratory relief and possibly damages (to be determined on remand).  The court also ruled that the Humphries were prevailing parties and ordered the county to pay nearly sixty thousand dollars in attorney’s fees.

The county appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Humphries could not have prevailed, because they failed to show that their deprivation was the result of a county policy or custom.  The county argued that it was merely following California law—that it adopted no independent policy of its own—and that the Humphries therefore failed to satisfy the requirement of Monell v. Department of Social Services (1978), in which the Court held that local governments can be liable directly under § 1983 only when their action is the result of official policy or custom.  The Humphries countered that Monell applied only to retroactive relief (i.e., monetary damages) and not to prospective relief (i.e., declaratory and injunctive relief) of the type at issue here.

The Court unanimously ruled for the county on this very narrow question.  In an opinion by Justice Breyer, it held that the plain language of § 1983 and of Monell meant that the Monell requirement applied both to retroactive relief and to prospective relief.

The eleven-page opinion reads like a first-year law school exercise in rule application—it’s that refreshingly simple.  The Court simply quoted Monell—which says in plain language that local governments can be liable for “monetary, declaratory, or injunctive relief” when their actions resulted from their official policy or custom—and applied it to this case.  The Court was not troubled that Monell itself involved only damages (and not prospective relief), explaining that “[a] holding . . . can extend through its logic beyond the specific facts of the particular case.”  And it dismissed the other arguments offered by the Humprhies in three short paragraphs.  It is all enough to give the impression that the case is merely perfunctory—that the Court is simply tying up some loose ends and answering this narrow question that Monell arguably left open.

And that may be so, especially considering what the Court did not say.  For example, despite invitations from the parties (lukewarm, to be sure), the Court did not say anything about federalism.  (The county packaged this in terms of federal court intervention into municipal governance; the Humphries emphasized federal primacy in protecting civil rights.)  And the Court declined to revisit Monell’s historical analysis of early civil rights legislation.  Either issue—federalism or history—could easily have sidetracked the Court from the central and narrow question here and could have resulted in a much more expansive and significant ruling.  The Court stayed on course, though, and the result is a simple, clear, and minimalist decision.

One final point.  Lest we worry that this ruling cuts off the remedies available to the Humphries—or diminishes civil rights plaintiffs’ remedies more generally—the Court made clear that the case addresses just one narrow issue and that Monell still allows the Humphries to prevail on prospective relief.  Thus, the Court carefully carves out of the case the issue whether the county’s lack of policy can itself be a custom under Monell.  If so, the Humphries could still prevail, even on their prospective claims. 

The very narrow holding in the case is just this:  A county can be liable under § 1983 for retroactive or prospective relief only when its actions result from policy or custom.  While the ruling is not particularly plaintiff-friendly, it probably doesn’t do too much damage to civil rights enforcement against municipalities.

Recommended Citation: Steven Schwinn, Opinion analysis: Tying up a loose end in civil rights enforcement, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 7, 2010, 11:00 AM),