Bringing a §1983 Suit Against a Municipality: The Monell Claim, Part 2

Our last post introduced the Monell claim and the requirements it provides for establishing municipal liability in a §1983 suit. Today’s post will focus on one of the drawbacks, or limitations, of this type of claim for plaintiffs, namely the ability of government officials who are named defendants to be dismissed from the suit on the grounds their inclusion in duplicative. 

Traditional theories of employer’s vicarious liability do not apply to municipalities; rather suits against municipal officials acting in their official capacity are treated as suits against the municipality itself in all but name. Monell, 436 U.S. at 690 n. 5. In cases where both an official sued his official capacity and the employer municipality are named as defendants, courts regularly dismiss the official capacity defendants’ inclusion as duplicative. See generally, Castanza v. Town of Brookhaven, 700 F.Supp.2d 277, 284 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (granting summary judgment to dismiss claims against defendants in their official capacity as duplicative of the claims against the Town). This leaves only the municipality as a defendant, for whom Monell is the appropriate standard for determining liability. See Monell, 436 U.S. at 694 (imposing liability for official’s execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy.”).

The defendant officials are still relevant to the case, as their actions relative to official policy will be the lens through which liability is viewed, but they will likely not remain parties to the suit. This likely has raised the question for many people of “why not sue the officials in their personal capacity as well?” The answer is officials will usually be shielded from personal liability by some form of immunity, whether qualified or absolute (ex: judicial, prosecutorial). Thus such claims often prove futile, and plaintiffs decide they are better served by suing the municipality itself, especially as that will be the source of any damages they can establish.

Again, the case is Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).

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