Published on:

Court Holds Municipality has no Immunity

On February 20, 1967, the then City Manager of respondent city of Independence, appointed petitioner to an indefinite term as Chief of Police. In 1972, petitioner and a new City Manager, engaged in a dispute over petitioner’s administration of the Police Department’s property room. In March of that year, a handgun, which the records of the Department’s property room stated had been destroyed, turned up in Kansas City in the possession of a felon. A New York Drug Possession Lawyer said this discovery prompted the City Manager to initiate an investigation of the management of the property room. Although the probe was initially directed by petitioner, the City Manager soon transferred responsibility for the investigation to the city’s Department of Law, instructing the City Counselor to supervise its conduct and to inform him directly of its findings.

Sometime in early April 1972, the City Manager received a written report on the investigation’s progress, along with copies of confidential witness statements. Although the City Auditor found that the Police Department’s records were insufficient to permit an adequate accounting of the goods contained in the property room, the City Counselor concluded that there was no evidence of any criminal acts or of any violation of state or municipal law in the administration of the property room.

A New York Drug Possession Lawyer said that, the City Manager asked petitioner to resign as Chief of Police and to accept another position within the Department, citing dissatisfaction with the manner in which petitioner had managed the Department, particularly his inadequate supervision of the property room. He warned that if petitioner refused to take another position in the Department his employment would be terminated, to which petitioner responded that he did not intend to resign.

Thereafter, the City Manager issued a public statement addressed to the Mayor and the City Council concerning the results of the investigation. A Nassau County Drug Possession Lawyer said after referring to “discrepancies” found in the administration, handling, and security of public property, the release concluded that there appears to be no evidence to substantiate any allegations of a criminal nature and offered assurances that steps have been initiated on an administrative level to correct these discrepancies. Although the City Manager apparently had decided by this time to replace petitioner as Police Chief, he took no formal action to that end and left for a brief vacation without informing the City Council of his decision.

Petitioner, having consulted with counsel, sent the City Manager a letter demanding written notice of the charges against him and a public hearing with a reasonable opportunity to respond to those charges. At approximately the same time, City Councilman asked for a copy of the investigative report on the Police Department property room

A Queens Drug Possession Lawyer said that, after completion of the planned agenda, Councilman read a statement he had prepared on the investigation. Among other allegations, the City Council charged that petitioner had misappropriated Police Department property for his own use, that narcotics and money had “mysteriously disappeared” from his office, that traffic tickets had been manipulated, that high ranking police officials had made “inappropriate” requests affecting the police court, and that “things have occurred causing the unusual release of felons.

After the City Council of respondent city moved that reports of an investigation of the city police department be released to the news media and turned over to the prosecutor for presentation to the grand jury and that the City Manager take appropriate action against the persons involved in the wrongful activities brought out in the investigative reports, the City Manager discharged petitioner from his position as Chief of Police. No reason was given for the dismissal and petitioner received only a written notice stating that the dismissal was made pursuant to a specified provision of the city charter. Subsequently, petitioner brought suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the city, the respondent City Manager, and the respondent members of the City Council in their official capacities, alleging that he was discharged without notice of reasons and without a hearing in violation of his constitutional rights to procedural and substantive due process, and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The District Court, after a bench trial, entered judgment for respondents. The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed, holding that although the city had violated petitioner’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, nevertheless all the respondents, including the city, were entitled to qualified immunity from liability based on the good faith of the city officials involved.

The issue in this case is whether the respondent city, acting in good faith, is immune from liability.

The Court held that, a municipality has no immunity from liability under § 1983 flowing from its constitutional violations and may not assert the good faith of its officers as a defense to such liability.

The Court said that, by its terms, § 1983 “creates a species of tort liability that on its face admits of no immunities.” Its language is absolute and unqualified, and no mention is made of any privileges, immunities, or defenses that may be asserted. Rather, the statute imposes liability upon “every person”, to encompass municipal corporations who, under color of state law or custom, “subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” And this expansive sweep of § 1983’s language is confirmed by its legislative history.

Where an immunity was well established at common law and where its rationale was compatible with the purposes of § 1983, the statute has been construed to incorporate that immunity. But there is no tradition of immunity for municipal corporations, and neither history nor policy supports a construction of § 1983 that would justify the qualified immunity accorded respondent city by the Court of Appeals.

The Court held that, the application and rationale underlying both the doctrine whereby a municipality was held immune from tort liability with respect to its “governmental” functions but not for its “proprietary” functions, and the doctrine whereby a municipality was immunized for its “discretionary” or “legislative” activities but not for those which were “ministerial” in nature, demonstrate that neither of these common-law doctrines could have been intended to limit a municipality’s liability under § 1983. The principle of sovereign immunity from which a municipality’s immunity for “governmental” functions derives cannot serve as the basis for the qualified privilege respondent city claims under § 1983, since sovereign immunity insulates a municipality from unconsented suits altogether, the presence or absence of good faith being irrelevant, and since the municipality’s “governmental” immunity is abrogated by the sovereign’s enactment of a statute such as § 1983 making it amenable to suit. And the doctrine granting a municipality immunity for “discretionary” functions, which doctrine merely prevented courts from substituting their own judgment on matters within the lawful discretion of the municipality, cannot serve as the foundation for a good-faith immunity under § 1983, since a municipality has no “discretion” to violate the Federal Constitution.

Rejection of a construction of § 1983 that would accord municipalities a qualified immunity for their good-faith constitutional violations is compelled both by the purpose of § 1983 to provide protection to those persons wronged by the abuse of governmental authority and to deter future constitutional violations, and by considerations of public policy. In view of the qualified immunity enjoyed by most government officials, many victims of municipal malfeasance would be left remediless if the city were also allowed to assert a good-faith defense. The concerns that justified decisions conferring qualified immunities on various government officials the injustice, particularly in the absence of bad faith, of subjecting the official to liability, and the danger that the threat of such liability would deter the official’s willingness to execute his office effectively are less compelling, if not wholly inapplicable, when the liability of the municipal entity is at issue.

In sum, the Court’s decision holding that municipalities have no immunity from damages liability flowing from their constitutional violations harmonizes well with developments in the common law and our own pronouncements on official immunities under § 1983. Doctrines of tort law have changed significantly over the past century, and our notions of governmental responsibility should properly reflect that evolution. No longer is individual “blameworthiness” the acid test of liability; the principle of equitable loss-spreading has joined fault as a factor in distributing the costs of official misconduct.

The Court believes that today’s decision, together with prior precedents in this area, properly allocates these costs among the three principals in the scenario of the § 1983 cause of action: the victim of the constitutional deprivation; the officer whose conduct caused the injury; and the public, as represented by the municipal entity. The innocent individual who is harmed by an abuse of governmental authority is assured that he will be compensated for his injury. The offending official, so long as he conducts himself in good faith, may go about his business secure in the knowledge that a qualified immunity will protect him from personal liability for damages that are more appropriately chargeable to the populace as a whole. And the public will be forced to bear only the costs of injury inflicted by the “execution of a government’s policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy.” In view of the foregoing, the Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

A municipality is not immune from liability flowing from its constitutional violations. An employee has the right to both procedural and substantive due process before he can be terminated. If you have been abused by a government entity and deprived you of your constitutional rights, seek the advice of a Suffolk Order of Protection Attorney. In Stephen Bilkis and Associates, Suffolk Criminal Attorney and Suffolk Domestic Violence Attorneys can help you, and make sure that you will be compensated for any injury you may have suffered.

Contact Information