Second Circuit: Plaintiff Can Assert Municipal Liability Claims Even if Officers Have Qualified Immunity

Recently, in Askins v. NYC, the Second Circuit explained the relationship between the liability of individual police officers, on the one hand, and that of a municipality (such as the City of New York), on the other.

Specifically, it held that the dismissal of claims against individual police officers on qualified immunity and statute of limitations grounds does not preclude a claim of municipal liability under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978).

Plaintiff’s lawsuit arose from the following facts:

On February 13, 2007, [plaintiff] Askins entered an apartment building at Park Avenue and 124th Street in Manhattan. Askins is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. Upon entering the apartment building, he hoisted himself out of his wheelchair and started to pull himself up a flight of stairs. While he was going up the stairs, two uniformed police officers, who did not identify themselves by name, approached him. Askins believed that one of the officers appeared to outrank the other. In this litigation he has identified the ranking officer as Sergeant John Doe and the other as Officer John Doe. The officers immediately began to search his wheelchair and backpack. Sergeant Doe spotted a blue rubber cap attached to the catheter waste bags affixed to Askins’s wheelchair and incorrectly believed it was a crack pipe. A continued search of Askins’s belongings turned up a kitchen knife. A third officer, Police Officer Symon, arrived and arrested Askins, who was then arraigned for criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree and criminal trespass in the third degree. All charges against him were dismissed on May 25, 2007.

Plaintiff sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging claims of false arrest (i.e., arrest without probable cause) and malicious prosecution against the individual officers, and a Monell claim against the City of New York.

The district court dismissed plaintiff’s complaint, finding that

  1. The only named defendant, Officer Symon (the others having been identified as “Doe” defendants) was entitled to qualified immunity;
  2. Any amendment to the complaint to identify the other officers by name would be “futile” because any such complaint would be filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations and it would not “relate back” to the original complaint; and
  3. Plaintiff’s Monell claim was foreclosed because “[a]ll of the alleged constitutional violations in this case are either time-barred or barred or barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity” such that “it cannot be said that any any allegedly illegal City policy caused Plaintiff a constitutional remediable injury“.

Plaintiff did not appeal point 1, and the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision as to point 2 because plaintiff did not raise below (and hence waived) his argument that an amended complaint naming the Doe defendants would relate back to the original complaint.

The Second Circuit, however, vacated the district court’s ruling on plaintiff’s Monell claim, finding that it “reflects a misunderstanding of the relationship between the liability of individual actors and municipal liability for purposes of Monell.”

The court expounded on this relationship:

[T]he City cannot be liable under Monell where Plaintiff cannot establish a violation of his constitutional rights. Unless a plaintiff shows that he has been the victim of a federal law tort committed by persons for whose conduct the municipality can be responsible, there is no basis for holding the municipality liable. Monell does not create a stand-alone cause of action under which a plaintiff may sue over a governmental policy, regardless of whether he suffered the infliction of a tort resulting from the policy. Liability under section 1983 is imposed on the municipality when it has promulgated a custom or policy that violates federal law and, pursuant to that policy, a municipal actor has torturously injured the plaintiff. … Monell does not provide a separate cause of action for the failure by the government to train its employees; it extends liability to a municipal organization where that organization’s failure to train, or the policies or customs that it has sanctioned, led to an independent constitutional violation.[]  Establishing the liability of the municipality requires a showing that the plaintiff suffered a tort in violation of federal law committed by the municipal actors and, in addition, that their commission of the tort resulted from a custom or policy of the municipality.

It does not follow, however, that the plaintiff must obtain a judgment against the individual tortfeasors in order to establish the liability of the municipality. It suffices to plead and prove against the municipality that municipal actors committed the tort against the plaintiff and that the tort resulted from a policy or custom of the municipality. In fact, the plaintiff need not sue the individual tortfeasors at all, but may proceed solely against the municipality. …

Where the plaintiff does proceed against both the municipal actors alleged to have inflicted the tort and the municipality that promulgated the offensive policy, the plaintiff’s failure to secure a judgment against the individual actors would, indeed, preclude a judgment against the municipality if the ruling in favor of the individual defendants resulted from the plaintiff’s failure to show that they committed the alleged tort. But where the plaintiff has brought a timely suit against the municipality and has properly pleaded and proved that he was the victim of the federal law tort committed by municipal actors and that the tort resulted from an illegal policy or custom of the municipality, the fact that the suit against the municipal actors was untimely, or that the plaintiff settled with them, or abandoned the suit against them, is irrelevant to the liability of the municipality.

By the same token, the entitlement of the individual municipal actors to qualified immunity because at the time of their actions there was no clear law or precedent warning them that their conduct would violate federal law is also irrelevant to the liability of the municipality. Qualified immunity is a defense available only to individuals sued in their individual capacity. [M]unicipalities have no immunity from damages for liability flowing from their constitutional violations. … [A] municipality may not assert qualified immunity based on its good faith belief that its actions or policies are constitutional”[.] The doctrine that confers qualified immunity on individual state or municipal actors is designed to ensure that the persons carrying out governmental responsibilities will perform their duties boldly and energetically without having to worry that their actions, which they reasonably believed to be lawful at the time, will later subject them to liability on the basis of subsequently developed legal doctrine. … That policy, however, has no bearing on the liability of municipalities. Municipalities are held liable if they adopt customs or policies that violate federal law and result in tortious violation of a plaintiff’s rights, regardless of whether it was clear at the time of the adoption of the policy or at the time of the tortious conduct that such conduct would violate the plaintiff’s rights.

Applying these principles to the facts of this case, the Second Circuit concluded:

To rule, as the district court did, that the City of New York escapes liability for the tortious conduct of its police officers because the individual officers are entitled to qualified immunity would effectively extend the defense of qualified immunity to municipalities, contravening [Supreme Court precedent].            

The district court did not rule that Askins failed in his amended complaint to allege that he was the victim of a constitutional tort committed by municipal actors, or that he failed to allege that the tort resulted from an unconstitutional custom or policy of the City, or that the suit against the City was untimely or otherwise defective. So far as the court has ruled up to now with respect to the suit against the City, the court has identified no deficiency in the plaintiff’s amended pleading. Accordingly, there was no basis for dismissing the complaint against the City.

The court therefore held that plaintiff’s claims of municipal liability against New York City “should not have been dismissed by reason of Officer Symon’s entitlement to qualified immunity and the untimeliness of Askins’s suit against the Doe defendants”, and remanded for further proceedings as to plaintiff’s claims against the City.  On remand, the district court will be permitted to “return to the question whether the amended complaint appropriately pleads that the torts of the police officers resulted from a custom or policy of the City.”

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