Whether all claims for relief against a municipality under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, including claims for declaratory or prospective relief, are subject to the Monell requirement that the plaintiff prove that the constitutional injury was inflicted as a result of a policy, custom, or practice of the municipality.
In 2001, Craig and Wendy Humphries were arrested on child abuse charges and listed in California's Child Abuse Central Index ("CACI"), which is organized under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act ("CANRA"). All charges against the Humphrieses were dismissed, and the Humphrieses obtained an order declaring them factually innocent. However, the Humphrieses were unable to contest their listing in the CACI. The Humphrieses sued Los Angeles County pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983seeking declaratory relief establishing that CANRA and policies related to the CACI are unconstitutional because of the lack of procedures to challenge an individual's inclusion based on a substantiated claim. Los Angeles County argued that as a local government it had no control over CACI procedures because the state government created these policies. The Ninth Circuit sided with the Humphrieses and held that Los Angeles County's liability should be determined according the requirements established in Monell v. Department of Social Services. The Supreme Court must now decide whether claims for declaratory relief against a public entity are subject to the requirements of Monell.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
1. Are claims for declaratory relief against a local public entity subject to the requirement of Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) that the plaintiff demonstrate that the constitutional violation was the result of a policy, custom or practice attributable to the local public entity as determined by the First, Second, Fourth, and Eleventh Circuits, or are such claims exempt from Monell's requirement as determined by the Ninth Circuit?
2. May a plaintiff be a prevailing party under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 for purposes of a fee award against a local public entity based upon a claim for declaratory relief where the plaintiff has not demonstrated that any constitutional violation was the result of a policy, custom or practice attributable to the public entity under Monell?
3. May a plaintiff be a prevailing party on a claim for declaratory relief for purposes of a fee award under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 where there is neither a formal order nor judgment granting declaratory relief, nor any other order altering the legal relationship between the parties in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff?
In March 2001, Craig Humphries' fifteen-year-old daughter S.H. stole his car and drove from California to her mother's home in Utah. S.H. accused her father and stepmother, Wendy Humphries, of abuse. Utah authorities contacted the Family Crimes Bureau ("FCB") of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department ("LASD"), and the FCB initiated an investigation into the abuse claims. In April 2001, police arrested the Humphrieses for felony torture, placed their two children in foster care, and submitted a child abuse report to the California Department of Justice ("CA DOJ"). On the basis of the child abuse report, the Humphrieses were listed on California's Child Abuse Central Index ("CACI"). The CACI, which is maintained under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act ("CANRA"), contains both substantiated and unsubstantiated reports of alleged child abuse. A number of state agencies and employers have access to the CACI for the purpose of issuing licenses to childcare providers and conducting background checks for childcare employment, adoption, and child placement.
In August 2001, the case against the Humphrieses was dismissed, and the Humphrieses obtained orders declaring them factually innocent of the felony torture charge. However, the Humphrieses remained listed in the CACI based upon the original police report, which the CA DOJ classified as substantiated at the time of the Humphrieses' arrest. Although unsubstantiated reports are removed from the CACI after ten years, no formal appeals process or procedures exists to remove a substantiated report, even if a substantiated report is later found to be false. Individuals placed on the CACI because of a substantiated report may contact the agency that created the report; however, the agency is under no obligation to conduct a review of the events or reevaluate the CACI listing. The Humphrieses contacted the FCB to remove their listing, but the FCB refused to remove the Humphrieses from the CACI because their listing was based on a substantiated report.
On August 27, 2002, the Humphrieses filed suit in United States District Court for the Central Division District of California against the County of Los Angeles alleging that the local government violated their due process rights. The court dismissed all counts except those alleging a violation of the Humphrieses' civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, reasoning that the Humphrieses’ arrest, incarceration, continued inclusion in the CACI, and the removal of the Humphrieses children were all based on improper grounds. In addition to damages, the Humphrieses sought an injunction and declaratory relief announcing that CANRA and policies related to the CACI are unconstitutional because of the lack of procedures to challenge an individual's inclusion. The district court granted summary judgment for the County on the CACI inclusion claim.
The Humphrieses appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stating that the policies related to the CACI violated their right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment because of the lack of adequate procedures to contest their inclusion. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's summary judgment decision stating that the Humphrieses sufficiently supported their claim and remanded to determine the County's liability under Monell v. Department of Social Services. Under Monell, a party must demonstrate that the constitutional violation was the result of a policy, custom, or practice attributable to the local public entity. Although the district court had not yet determined the County's liability under Monell, in June 2009, the Ninth Circuit awarded the Humphrieses attorney’s fees. The Supreme Court granted the County's petition for certiorari to determine whether claims for declaratory relief against a local public entity are subject to the requirements of Monell.
Los Angeles County argues that claims for prospective relief against a municipality under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are subject to the Monell requirement that the plaintiff prove that the constitutional injury was inflicted as a result of a policy, custom, or practice of the municipality. In refusing to follow Monell, Lost Angeles County argues that the Ninth Circuit contradicted the language and legislative history of Section 1983 and violated principles of federalism inherent in Monell requirements. The Humphrieses counter that Monell causation requirements are not necessary in cases seeking prospective relief and that they are only necessary in retrospective compensatory relief. Moreover, they assert that the Monell Court clarified that there was no limit on the power of federal courts to enforce the Constitution against municipalities. The Humphrieses also assert that if a court did apply the Monell requirements to all relief claims against municipalities, then claimants would be foreclosed from prospective relief under Section 1983 entirely.
42 U.S.C. § 1983 Legislative History and Monell
Los Angeles County argues that Congress’s rejection of early amendments to Section1983 illustrates that Congress never intended to make local municipalities responsible for the actions of third parties. . Los Angeles County asserts that the Court in Monell based its ruling in part on the language and congressional background of Section 1983 as well as the possible coercive effect of civil claims. Thus, Los Angeles County claims that the language and history of Section 1983 make clear that municipalities are subject to Monell standards regardless of the type of relief sought.
The Humphrieses argue that municipalities, like any other defendant subject to suit under Section1983, are potentially liable as ‘persons’ for any act taken under color of state law. Contrary to Los Angeles County's Monell interpretation, the Humphrieses argue that the Monell Court’s understanding of Section 1983 was that Congress did not wish to "impose an obligation to keep the peace stemming not from state law, but from the threat of large damages under a federal cause of action." Moreover, the Humphrieses assert that the Court was not trying to justify restrictions on the courts' ability to remedy ongoing violations of the Constitution.
The Application of the Monell Requirements to Claims for Prospective Relief
In Chaloux v. Killeen, a decision relied upon by the Ninth Circuit in this case, the Ninth appeals court found that claims seeking declaratory and prospective injunctive relief were not subject to Monell policy, custom, or practice requirements. Los Angeles County argues that Chaloux contradicts the statutory language and legislative history of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and violates principles of federalism inherent in Monell requirements. According to Los Angeles County, a municipality is subject to the remedial scheme of Section 1983 and Monell policy or custom requirements regardless of the remedy sought.
The Humphrieses contend that, similar to the Ninth Circuit in Chaloux, a separate showing of a municipal policy or custom is not a prerequisite for an award of declarative or injunctive relief. The Humphrieses contend that the Monell requirements in subsequent cases have involved claims for damages. . Ultimately, the Humphrieses argue that applying the Monell standards to this case involving prospective relief is "unnecessary and inappropriate" because 1) in order to win prospective relief a plaintiff must already prove causation, 2) a municipality's refusal to halt questionable conduct is itself a policy, and 3) using a damages causation standard "will deprive courts of the power to stop continuing violations of constitutional rights."
Los Angeles County, however, asserts that the "Court has uniformly reaffirmed" the Monell requirement. Specifically, Los Angeles County argues that Monell has been upheld as a rule of causation that properly distinguishes between "permissible and impermissible judicial intervention in the internal operation of municipalities."
The Humphrieses argue that the additional requirement of a causal link between the constitutional injury and municipal policy or custom is unnecessary in the context of prospective and declarative relief. They state that claims for prospective relief have an inherent separate causal showing that a plaintiff must satisfy. The Humphrieses assert that Article III standing requirements and the principles behind prospective relief will automatically establish the causal link that Monell calls for under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Humphrieses also argue that a claimant may only receive prospective relief upon showing that they are likely to suffer future injury and not just that there was a prior constitutional violation. They claim that by showing that damages are likely to recur or are continuing the claimant will always establish the causal link necessary for declarative or prospective relief.
Foreclosure of Prospective Relief and Ongoing Constitutional Violations
The Humphrieses assert that the Court's application of Monell here would foreclose prospective relief that does not include compensatory damages. The Humphrieses state that a municipality could argue it is not subject to prospective relief because it is not enforcing municipal policy, but merely state law. However, Los Angeles County states that the Humphrieses do not offer any circumstance in which this would actually happen. Los Angeles County argues that the doctrine following Ex Parte Young allows claims for "injunctive relief against state officials charged with the responsibilities of enforcing state law."
Los Angeles County points out that the Humphrieses initially "brought an official capacity suit against the very state official charged with defending the constitutionality of all state laws and maintaining the index." Thus, Los Angeles County argues that a court’s application of Monell policy or custom requirements against the municipality would in no way deprive the Humphrieses of a meaningful remedy.
Los Angeles County argues that the logic of Ex Parte Young allowing claims for injunctive relief against state officials does not apply. They reason that Ex Parte Young is inapplicable here because only one aspect of the Humphrieses's declaratory relief claim is based on the "conduct of individual county employees."
The Humphrieses assert that "the Court has long recognized the importance of judicial redress for ongoing violations of constitutional rights." The Humphrieses argue that Los Angeles County has refused to conform its conduct to the Constitution even though the municipality has been aware of the violation since 2002. The Humphrieses assert that they are entitled to relief because Los Angeles County continues to deprive the Humphrieses’ of their rights and, thus, such behavior warrants relief.
argues that it should not be held responsible for policies related to the CACI because they were created by the state government. . Los Angeles County argues that a ruling against the Humphrieses would not prevent the Humphrieses from obtaining relief because they are able to bring their claim against the state directly and have already sued the Californiattorney General. Meanwhile, the Humphrieses assert that the Monell requirements should not prevent the courts from demanding that local governments correct violations of citizens' civil rights and prevent the continuance of unconstitutional policies.
Due Process Concerns
The Constitution requires that individual's receive adequate due process, in the form of procedural protections, before they are deprived of life, liberty, or property. The Ninth Circuit determined that the Humphrieses's inclusion in the CACI, without an opportunity to contest their listing or to appeal their continued inclusion, has interfered with their protected liberty interests. The Humphrieses have been unable to volunteer at a community center offering childcare because the facility requires clearance through a CACI check. Wendy Humphries worries that her inclusion in the CACI will affect her work as a special education teacher because the listing may have an impact on the periodic renewal of her teaching credentials. The Ninth Circuit concluded that although California possesses the legitimate goal of creating an index of child abusers in order to protect children, the maintenance of inaccurate, incomplete, and unsubstantiated listings undermines the purpose of the CACI. The Ninth Circuit asserted that existence of flaws in the index compromises the value of the CACI as a useful tool in identifying individuals that pose a risk to children, and the state government as no legitimate interest in opposing the adoption of procedures to challenge erroneous inclusions in the index.
More than forty states maintain child abuse registries, and individuals have successfully sued to address due process concerns. The North Carolina's Court of Appeals recently ruled that their child abuse registry was unconstitutional because individuals did not have the opportunity to challenge a report prior to their listing in the registry and the registry allowed listings based on minimal proof. In response to due process concerns, Missouri has also reformed its child abuse registry policies to include an opportunity to appeal a report before an individual's inclusion. In 2006, the Adam Walsh Act authorized the creation of a national registry to track child abuse reports. However, after conducting an initial feasibility study, federal authorities discovered issues concerning due process rights and agreed to formulate appropriate procedures prior to listing individuals as well as procedures to allow individuals to appeal their inclusion.
Los Angeles County explains that the Monell policy and custom requirements are an essential means to protecting federalist ideals. Los Angeles County contends that if the courts ignore the Monell policy or custom requirements, then courts will have direct control over a local public entity. Los Angeles County argues that the federal government may only "intrude" into the operations of municipality, such as by awarding declaratory relief, when an individual suffers a constitutional injury through the policy, custom or practice of a municipality. The County explains that only states can control the law enforcement powers of their local governments.
The Humphrieses contend that Los Angeles County's federalism concerns are unfounded. The Humphrieses explain that Monell made clear that its policy and custom requirements "put no limit on the power of federal courts to enforce the Constitution against municipalities who violate it." The Humphrieses argue the Court has repeatedly held that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 should be "'broadly construed' to further its remedial purpose.'" The Humphrieses remind the Court that the purpose of the Civil Rights Act, and § 1983, is to protect individuals from a municipality's misuse of power as states may be unconcerned with individuals' Constitutional rights. They claim that the Act prevents municipalities from arguing that state law justifies their actions.
The Humphrieses argue that a ruling for Los Angeles County may encourage local governments to ignore ongoing constitutional violations and attempt to place blame solely on the state government for deficient policies. Additionally, such a ruling may also limit the ability of the judiciary to correct constitutional violations. However, Los Angeles County counters that a ruling for the Humphrieses would needlessly create different standards for obtaining different types of relief, and individuals seeking damages would be held to a higher standard than individuals suing for declaratory relief. .
This case will determine whether the Monell requirements are only needed in cases involving retrospective compensatory damages. Los Angeles County contends that all claims for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, including claims for prospective relief, are subject to the causation requirements of Monell. The Humphries, however, argue that the Monell custom or policy requirements do not apply to claims for prospective relief. Ultimately, the Humphrieses will likely obtain relief concerning their due process claims regardless of the Supreme Court's decision because of their additional action pending against California's Attorney General.
· Los Angeles Times, Carol J. Williams: Abuser List Tags Innocents, Too (Dec. 7, 2008)
· Education Week, Mark Walsh: Civil Rights Case Has Implications for Schools (Feb. 23, 2010)
· Examiner. com, Daniel Weaver: NC Court of Appeals Rules Procedure for Putting People on Child Abuse Register is Unconstitutional (Mar. 4, 2010)
· Cbsnews.com: Child Abuse Registry Hits Stumbling Blocks (Apr. 26, 2010)