In many ways, Monell is a critical case for both plaintiffs and defendants. For plaintiffs, Monell provides a roadmap for establishing municipal liability, with subsequent case law spelling out the exact methods which would establish a “practice or custom.” Whether such liability is ultimately established can make or break cases in which the municipality is the primary source of funds for any eventual damages (a description which applies to many §1983 cases). This is particularly true in high-value cases, such as class action suits, when the damages sought far exceed what an individual as defendant could pay.
For defendants, Monell provides three further elements of the plaintiff’s pleadings which can be attacked as insufficient. Defendants can argue the absence of a constitutional violation, that the official was acting not in an official but personal capacity, and they can argue that the pleadings are insufficient to show a municipal “policy or custom” under the theories discussed in Part 1 of this series. Any of these could be grounds for dismissal, and the need to show all three elements for each claim puts pressure on the plaintiff’s counsel to have a particularly well-plead complaint. It also helps to shift liability away from officials and on to the municipality, the benefit of which depends entirely on who is being represented.
To sum up, if you plan to bring a §1983 case against a municipality, or are defending a municipality in such a case, having a familiarity with Monell will be indispensable to your success or failure.
Once again, the case is Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).