Supervisory Liability in Municipal Litigation
Stephan Lopez, Esq.,
Supervisory liability in municipal litigation…Looking the other way can make you liable.
Supervisory liability in municipal actions under §1983 cannot be based on the theory of respondeat superior, which is a theory that imposes liability on employers for the acts of the employees. See Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), a case in which the Supreme Court held that respondeat superior was not a basis to impose municipal liability under §1983.
Supervisory personnel however, are not immune from liability for the conduct of their subordinates and can still be held liable under other theories of liability.The majority of §1983 cases suggest that supervisory liability requires some type of personal involvement on behalf of the supervisor.
For example, supervisors are liable if constitutional violations take place in their presence and they either direct or authorized the actions which led to the violations. Fundiller v. City of Cooper City, 777 F.2d 1436 (11th Cir. 1985).
It has been held by a number of courts that acquiescing to acts committed by subordinates is a sufficient basis to impose liability on supervisory personnel. Courts define acquiescence as a passive compliance to what is happening. Eagan, the Scope of Supervisory Liability Under 42 USC § 1983, J. Contemp. L. 141,144 (1979).
Rodney King v. the City of Los Angeles, is a famous case that involved municipal liability based on the acquiescence of a supervisor. Rodney King was beaten by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, and the beating was captured on tape. Sergeant Stacey Koon, who mostly watched but did not strike King, was found guilty of violating King’s civil rights despite his acquittal in state court of criminal charges. 2:91-CV-02497 (C.D. Cal. May 8, 1991).
In U.S. v. Koon, 833 F. Supp. 769 (1993), the Court noted that Sergeant Koon’s conviction for violating King’s civil rights was entirely based upon his willful refusal to prevent the illegal use of force in his presence. See United States v. Reese, 2 F.3d 870, 889-90 (9th Cir. 1993). Koon’s action in failing to prevent his officers from using excessive force made him liable as a supervisor.
In another supervisor liability case, McQuarter v. the City of Atlanta, supervisors were present and watched as an officer employed a choke hold on an individual who was resisting arrest. The officer continued to apply the choke hold even after the individual had been restrained and had stopped resisting. The choke hold was so strong that it caused the individual to lose consciousness and die. The Court held the supervisors were directly liable for the officer’s actions because they did not instruct the officer to release the individual from the choke hold as the individual was no longer resisting. 572 F. Supp. 1401 (N.D. Ga.), app. dismissed, 724 F.2d 881 (11th Cir. 1983).
Supervisors have a responsibility to ensure that their subordinates not only follow the department’s procedures but also the U.S. Constitution. A supervisor’s acquiescence to an officer’s violation of the Constitutional rights guaranteed to all, or their failure to instruct the officer to act to stem misconduct, can subject them and the employer to liability.
Stephan Lopez is a former police officer and Miami-Dade prosecutor that provides legal representation that is both multi-faceted and knowledgeable to clients facing serious criminal charges. Specifically, he focuses and assists clients in the areas of Criminal Defense, Civil Rights Claims, Family Law, Commercial and Civil Litigation, Business Counseling, Labor & Employment Law.
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