Connick v. Thompson (09-571)

Oral argument: Oct. 6, 2010

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Aug. 10, 2009)

42 U.S.C. § 1983, BRADY VIOLATION, MUNICIPAL LIABILITY, FAILURE-TO-TRAIN LIABILITY

John Thompson was wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years following a trial during which the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence, in violation of Brady v. Maryland. Thompson brought suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the district attorney's office is liable for failing to properly train its employees on the requirements of Brady. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found in favor of assigning liability to the district attorney's office. Petitioners, including District Attorney Harry Connick, appealed to the Supreme Court. Connick claims that there was no obvious need to train prosecutors regarding Brady standards and that liability should not attach to the office when there was no notice that the training program needed reform. Respondent Thompson contends that the prosecutors’ lack of training amounted to a deliberate indifference to preserving constitutional rights and that liability may properly attach to the district attorney's office without a past history of violations. This decision will determine the extent to which a municipality may be liable for a single action by one of its employees.

Question presented

Does imposing failure-to-train liability on a district attorney's office for a single Brady violation contravene the rigorous culpability and causation standards of Canton and Bryan County?

top

Issue

Is a single failure by prosecutors to provide exculpatory evidence to a defendant sufficient to establish failure-to-train liability against a District Attorney’s office?

top

Facts

In April, 1985, shortly before his murder trial, a Louisiana state court convicted Respondent John Thompson of attempted armed robbery. See Thompson v. Connick, 578 F.3d 293, 296 (5th Cir. 2009). Several weeks later in May 1985, the same court convicted Thompson of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. See Thompson v. Connick, 2007 U.S. Dist. Lexis 29717 at *2 (E.D. La. 2007).

Fourteen years later, in 1999, an investigator discovered that prosecutors had failed to present an important crime lab report in the attempted armed robbery case. See Thompson, 578 F.3d at 296. The lab report suggested that the perpetrator of the attempted armed robbery had type B blood. See id. Thompson has type O blood. See id. Based on that new evidence, a Louisiana court vacated the attempted robbery conviction. See id. Subsequently, a Louisiana court of appeals reversed Thompson’s murder conviction on the grounds that the improper attempted armed robbery conviction had deprived Thompson of his constitutional right to testify in his own defense at the murder trial. See id.

After his release, Thompson sued the District Attorney’s office that had withheld the crucial evidence and several officials, including Petitioner District Attorney Harry Connick, in their official and individual capacity. See Thompson, 578 F.3d at 296. Only Thompson’s 42 U.S.C. §1983 civil rights claim for wrongful suppression of exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland proceeded to trial. See id. Under the theory that Connick’s deliberate indifference to an obvious need to train, monitor, or supervise his prosecutors had caused the Brady violation, the jury awarded Thompson $14 million in damages. See id. at 296–97.

The general rule of Brady is that prosecutors must disclose evidence favorable to the accused. See Thompson, 578 F.3d at 302; see also Maryland v. Brady, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The District Attorney’s office did not provide formal training regarding Brady. See Thompson, 578 F.3d at 302. The assistant district attorneys, however, were familiar with the general rule of Brady, and in the many cases the office handled in the ten years prior to Thompson’s only four convictions were overturned based on Brady violations. See id. at 302–03. There were no similar failures to disclose lab reports in any cases handled by the office before or after Thompson’s trial, and three witnesses testified that the office had a policy of disclosing all crime lab reports. See id. at 305.

In this case, an assistant district attorney intentionally suppressed the blood evidence that would have helped Thompson. See Thompson, 578 F.3d at 307. The attorney checked out the blood evidence and never brought it back. See id. The lab report also disappeared until its discovery fourteen years later. See id.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana denied Connick’s efforts to alter the decision of the jury, stating that the jury was justified in its decisions against Connick based on the evidence at trial. See Thompson, 2007 U.S. Dist. Lexis 29717 at *5–7. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court. See Thompson, 578 F.3d at 293.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether a single Brady violation is sufficient to establish failure-to-train liability against a District Attorney’s office. See Connick v. Thompson, 130 S.Ct. 1880 (2010).

top

Discussion

The Supreme Court will determine whether a District Attorney’s office can be held vicariously liable for failing to properly train its prosecutors based on a single incident in which prosecutors suppressed evidence favorable to the defendant. See Connick v. Thompson, 130 S.Ct. 1880 (2010).

According to the Petitioners, Harry Connick and other prosecutors (collectively “Connick”), a district attorney’s allegedly deficient Brady training cannot meet the heightened fault and causation requirements for failure-to-train liability without a history of similar violations. See Brief for Petitioners at 24. Connick claims that a district attorney generally cannot be deliberately indifferent for failing to train prosecutors, because a district attorney reasonably relies on his prosecutors’ education and ethics to assess Brady obligations. See id. at 25. The National League of Cities and other groups agree, arguing that holding the city liable for a failure to train based on a single Brady act requires cities to presume that their employees will intentionally break the law. See Brief of Amicus Curiae the National League of Cities et al. in Support of Petitioners at 12–13. They assert that, without notice to the contrary, Connick was entitled to presume that the attorneys would behave ethically and it would be unfair to hold him liable for failing to train his employees on what they should already have known. See id. at 9–10.

The Respondent, John Thompson, counters that district attorneys should not receive immunity for the actions of their employees just because attorneys graduate law school. See Brief for Respondent at 47. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) and the American Civil Liberties Union agree with Thompson, describing Brady rules as “complex” and “hardly intuitive.” See Brief of Amicus Curiae the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) in Support of Respondent at 21; Brief of Amici Curiae the American Civil Liberties Union et al. in Support of Respondent at 21. According to the NACDL, criminal prosecutors are specialists who must receive special training to comply with their constitutional, statutory, and ethical requirements beyond their law school classes. See Brief of NACDL at 16–17.

In support of Connick, the National District Attorneys Association and the California District Attorneys Association (“Attorneys Associations”) caution that lowering the standards of fault and causation required to prove municipal liability in failure-to-train cases to an essentially “de facto respondeat superior” liability will create a slippery slope towards exposing municipalities to a flood of litigation. See Brief of Amici Curiae the National District Attorneys Association and the California District Attorneys Association (“Attorneys Associations”) in Support of Petitioners at 6. The Attorney Associations warn that relaxing the standards would permit liability against a prosecutor’s office for almost any reversal of a conviction based on prosecutorial error, no matter how slight, if better training or supervision might have prevented the error. See id. at 7. The Attorneys Associations fear that this lower standard, favored by Thompson, would lead to a severe strain on state and local budgets and in turn lead to cutbacks on the work that District Attorney’s offices can undertake. See id. at 8–9. Even unsuccessful suits for failure-to-train liability based on a single incident will eat away at resources through substantial defense costs. See id. at 10.

Thompson argues that relieving Connick of failure-to-train liability for a single Brady violation would set a dangerous precedent, because the only way a municipality could face liability would be after district attorney employees injured multiple individuals. See Brief for Respondent at 46. According to the NACDL and Former Federal Civil Rights Officials and Prosecutors (“Former Officials”), this problem of limited municipal liability is compounded by the fact that Brady violations occur in secret, whether intentional or inadvertent, and are rarely discovered. See Brief of NACDL at 25; Brief of Amici Curiae Former Federal Civil Rights Officials and Prosecutors (“Former Officials”) in Support of Respondent at 30. As a result, the Former Officials believe that allowing “one free Brady violation” before holding a municipality liable would, in reality, permit prosecutors to get away with an indefinite number of undiscovered violations. See Brief of Former Officials at 29–30. The Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and other groups add that the post-trial lack of witness availability to and counsel seeking evidence for the defense would compound difficulty in discovering Brady violations. See Brief of Amici Curiae the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law in Support of Respondent at 8. Additionally, Thompson does not fear the risk of a drastic increase in failure-to-train municipal liability cases. See Brief for Respondent at 53. The NACDL sides with Thompson, dismissing the slippery slope argument for reasons such as the difficulty in uncovering Brady violations. See Brief of NACDL at 37–40.

The Supreme Court’s decision will determine to what extent a district attorney’s office is responsible for a single misdeed of its prosecutors.

top

Analysis

This case presents the issue of whether a municipality may be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failing to train its employees in the requirements set forth in Brady v. Maryland even if there was not a pattern of similar violations in the office. See Brief for Petitioners, Harry Connick et al. at 3. In Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court held that, to satisfy the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a prosecutor must turn over evidence that is favorable to an accused person. See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963).

Can a Single Incident Establish Municipal Liability Under Section 1983?

Petitioners, including District Attorney Harry Connick (collectively “Connick”), argue that the Supreme Court has provided standards for holding a municipality liable under Section 1983. See Brief for Petitioners at 21. Connick maintains that a municipality may only be held liable for failing to train its employees when that failure amounts to a deliberate indifference on the part of the municipality. See id. at 22. Connick argues that although the Supreme Court has stated that a single violation may sometimes be enough to show deliberate indifference, that is an exception to the general rule that deliberate indifference is shown by refusing to address a pattern of constitutional violations. See id. at 23. Connick claims that liability should only attach after a single incident when it is an extreme scenario, citing the Supreme Court’s example of a city arming its police officers, but failing to train them in the use of deadly force. See id.

Respondent, John Thompson, insists that the facts of this case satisfy the requirement for deliberate indifference on the part of the municipality. See Brief for Respondent, John Thompson, at 26–27. Thompson argues that there is no foundation in either the statutory language or the Court’s prior cases that requires a pattern of violations in order to show deliberate indifference. See id. at 27. Thompson maintains that in finding deliberate indifference on the part of a municipality, the focus is on the obviousness of the need for training and the likelihood that a failure to train will result in constitutional violations, and both requirements are met in this case. See id. at 29, 37. Thompson further points out that, in fact, this case does not only involve a “single” Brady violation but a pattern. See id. at 37–38. Thompson emphasizes the “culture of indifference” to the requirements of Brady and that four prosecutors knew of the exculpatory evidence but deliberately did not produce it. See id. at 38.

Connick contends that there was adequate training on the requirements of Brady. See Brief for Petitioners at 7–9. However, he also argues in the alternative that even if the training program of his office was not adequate, this is not the type of situation in which liability should attach after a single violation. See id. at 24. Connick argues that because attorneys are professionals, they are expected to adhere to professional and ethical standards that are independent of the requirements of their particular workplace. See id. at 25. Furthermore, Connick contends that the need for training an attorney in those standards is not obvious, implying that one violation of them is not enough to subject the district attorney’s office to liability. See id. Similarly, Connick maintains that the only instance in which the Supreme Court alluded that a single violation would be enough to establish liability presents a very different scenario from the present case. See id. at 27. Connick argues that training police officers and prosecutors is very different. See id. at 24. He maintains that it is the municipality’s duty to train its police officers, but a prosecutor begins work having received training in law school. See id. at 27. He also argues that a district attorney ought to be able to rely on attorneys in his office adhering to their professional standards. See id. at 25. Connick claims that it would be impossible for the district attorney’s office to ignore a flaw in Brady training without first having seen a pattern of Brady violations. See id. at 24.

Thompson, on the other hand, argues that the facts of this case are similar to those in which the Court has previously held a single violation enough to establish liability. See Brief for Respondent at 37–38. Thompson claims that Connick knew that training regarding Brady standards was required, and that a lack of training regarding Brady standards was likely to lead to a violation of constitutional rights. See id. at 39–40. Thompson further argues that the differences between prosecutors and police officers that Connick highlights are ephemeral. See id. at 35–37. Although the attorneys in Connick’s office did attend law school, Thompson points out that there is no guarantee they ever encountered Brady v. Maryland in their classes. See id. at 47. Thompson maintains that, although the attorneys may be subject to external ethical and professional standards, it does not mean that they do not need training on certain aspects of their profession. See id. at 48–49. Thompson argues that the fact that Connick’s employees attended law school does not relieve him of his responsibility to train them. See id.

Should Municipal Liability Attach for Willful Violations?

Connick argues that this Brady violation did not stem from a lack of training on the requirements of Brady, but rather from the deliberate actions of one attorney. See Brief for Petitioners at 38. Connick asserts that allowing liability to attach to the district attorney’s office because of the actions of a prosecutor in this case would change municipal liability into vicarious liability. See id. at 41. Connick further contends that municipal liability is only meant to attach when it is the policy of the municipality which causes the violation of constitutional rights. See id. In this case, Connick emphasizes, if the district attorney is liable for the independent and contrary to policy actions of an attorney, the district attorney’s office is being held liable not for its own policies, but for any action by the individual employee, which is the definition of vicarious liability. See id.

Thompson, in contrast, argues that this is not creating vicarious liability here because Connick’s lack of training on Brady issues meant that his prosecutors did not know the requirements set forth in Brady and this is what led to the violation of constitutional rights. See Brief for Respondent at 56. Similarly, Thompson points out that no fewer than four prosecutors knew about the potentially exculpatory evidence and failed to turn it over. See id. at 57. Thompson argues that this demonstrates that the constitutional violations here were not caused by one errant prosecutor, but by Connick’s policies, or lack thereof, regarding Brady material. See id. at 60.

Connick contends that the training programs he implemented in the office were more than adequate. See Brief for Petitioners at 3–6. He contends that his office emphasized compliance with Brady requirements. See id. at 7. Connick maintains that the programs he instituted, including weekly trial meetings in which all aspects of trials were scrutinized, including Brady material; the introduction of periodic memoranda describing developments in prosecutors’ professional obligations; and advance sheets, outlining new developments in law show that he thoroughly trained his office on Brady’s standards. See id. at 5–8. Although he did not have formal training on to Brady issues, Connick maintains that it was covered extensively through his other programs and that those programs demonstrate that he did not exhibit deliberate indifference to his training responsibilities. See id. at 8.

Thompson counters that in its previous case dealing with this deliberate indifference, the Court did not require a proof of a pattern of violations. See Brief for Respondent at 29. Thompson maintains that awareness is the key to determining whether liability should attach to the district attorney’s office. See id. at 27. Thompson argues that if Connick was aware of the need for training, and the likelihood that a lack of training would result in constitutional violations, his office should be held liable. See id.

top

Conclusion

In Connick v. Thompson, the Supreme Court will decide whether a single failure by prosecutors to provide exculpatory evidence to a defendant is sufficient to establish failure-to-train liability against a District Attorney’s office. Connick argues that a finding of liability for failing to train his employees, when he had no notice that such training was necessary, would hold him vicariously liable despite the strict fault and causation requirements of Section1983. Thompson, however, argues that the need for training was so obvious based on the complexity of Brady requirements that the lack of a preexisting pattern of violations should not immunize Connick from failure-to-train liability. This case will have an effect on the amount of proof required by a plaintiff in a failure-to-train case, the liability of a municipality for a single unauthorized action by an employee, and the extent of prosecutorial immunity in a Section1983 setting.

top

Authors

Prepared by: Kelly Halford and Eric Schulman

Edited by: Sarah Chon

Additional Sources

· Wex: Brady Rule

· Law.com, Tony Mauro: Clement Lines Up Ex-Prosecutors, Seeks Argument Time in Misconduct Case (Aug. 25, 2010)

· New Orleans Times-Picayune, Katy Reckdahl: Appeals Court Upholds $14 Million Judgment Against Orleans DA Office (Dec. 20, 2008)

top

Edited by