The Supreme Court just released its opinion in Los Angeles County v. Humphries, No. 09-350, slip op. (U.S. Nov 30, 2010). The Court ruled that the “policy or custom” Monell requirement in Section 1983 cases applies irrespective of whether the relief sought is monetary or prospective.
The Humphries were accused of child abuse in California, but later exonerated. Under state statute, their names were added to a child abuse database for a period of 10 years. The statute has no procedures for challenging a person’s inclusion in the child abuse database, and neither California nor Los Angeles County instituted such procedures. The Humphries filed suit under Section 1983, seeking damages, and injunction, and a declaration that public officials and Los Angeles County had deprived them of their constitutional rights by failing to provide procedures to contest inclusion in the database.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the government entities, but the Ninth Circuit disagreed, stating that the Fourteenth Amendment required California to provide notice and “some kind of hearing.” The Ninth Circuit held that the Humphries were entitled to declaratory relief, and possible damages on remand. The Ninth Circuit held that the Humphries were prevailing parties and awarded $600,000 in attorney’s fees and that $60,000 must be paid by Los Angeles County. The County denied that it was liable and that, in respect to the County, the plaintiffs were not prevailing parties. The Country claimed that as a municipal entity, it was liable only if a municipal “policy or custom” caused the Humphries to be deprived of their constitutional rights. In this case, it was California policy, not Los Angeles County policy, that brought the deprivation. However, the Ninth Circuit saw no reason to remand in respect to the County’s obligation to pay the $60,000 in attorney’s fees because “the limitations to liability established in Monell do not apply to claims for prospective relief.” The County filed its cert petition asking the Supreme Court to decide a circuit split on whether or not Monell’s policy or custom requirement applies to both claims for damages and claims for prospective relief.
The Court reasoned that nothing in Section 1983 suggests that the causation requirement should change with the form of relief sought. In fact, the text of the statute suggests the opposite when it provides that a person who meets Section 1983 elements “shall be liable . . . in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.” In addition, the Supreme Court in Monell thought that Congress intended potential Section 1983 liability where a municipality’s own violations were at issue but not where only the violations of others were at issue. To find the requirement inapplicable where prospective relief is at issue would undermine Monell’s logic. The case has been remanded back to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.