Supreme Court Update: Los Angeles County v. Humphries (09-350) and Order List

December 7, 2010 Supreme Court Update


Greetings, Court fans!

We're back with one opinion from last week, Los Angeles County v. Humphries (09-350), holding that plaintiffs suing municipal entities must show that their injuries were caused by a municipal "policy or custom" in order to obtain prospective relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. We also have two new cert grants, and a dissent from the denial of cert to report.

In Los Angeles County v. Humphries, the plaintiffs brought a § 1983 suit challenging their continued inclusion in a California state index of reported child abusers. A California law required law enforcement agencies to include all reports of child abuse that were "not unfounded," even if they were "inconclusive or unsubstantiated." The reports would remain in the index for at least 10 years. While the law also provided that reports proven to be "unfounded" should be removed from the index, it set forth no procedures for an individual to challenge the inclusion of a previously filed report and neither the State nor County had adopted such procedures. Plaintiffs were accused of child abuse, but were later exonerated. When they were unable to convince the Los Angeles County Sherriff's Department to remove them from the index, they brought suit against the County and various State and County officials. The district court found that the plaintiffs had not been deprived of a constitutionally protected "liberty" interest and granted summary judgment for all the defendants. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that people placed in the index were entitled to notice and "some kind of hearing" under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit held that the plaintiffs were entitled to declaratory relief and might be entitled to damages (the case would be remanded to decide this issue), and also ordered the State and County to pay plaintiffs' attorney's fees. The County objected, arguing that plaintiffs should not be considered the prevailing parties with respect to it because, under Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs. (1978), municipal entities were liable under § 1983 only for injuries caused by their own "policy or custom." Here, the County argued, plaintiffs were injured, if at all, by a State policy, not a County policy. The Ninth Circuit rejected the County's argument, explaining that plaintiffs might have been harmed by the County's policy of failing to provide a method for challenging inclusion in the index (the district court could decide this issue on remand when determining whether monetary damages would be awarded), and with respect to plaintiffs' claim for prospective relief, Monell did not even apply.

The Court considered only this last issue and reversed, unanimously (with Justice Kagan sitting out). Justice Breyer wrote for the Court. Section 1983 imposes liability on any "person, who under color of" state law, deprives another of his constitutional rights. Monell held that a municipal entity could be liable under § 1983 only for acts taken as a result of its own policy or custom and not for acts committed by others (the prime example being a municipal employee). While the facts of Monell concerned money damages, its reasoning applied with equal force to prospective relief. The plaintiffs argued that Monell's "policy or custom" limitation was redundant in prospective relief cases, because in any case where prospective relief was granted, the case must have involved the municipality's own conduct. The Court rejected that argument with something akin to a Zen riddle: "To argue that a requirement is necessarily satisfied, however, is not to argue that its satisfaction is unnecessary." While the Court acknowledged that its ruling might have limited practical significance, the Court thought it wiser to clarify that "Monell's ‘policy or custom' requirement applies in § 1983 cases irrespective of whether the relief sought is monetary or prospective." The Court remanded the case for further proceedings—presumably for the district court to determine if a County policy or custom had indeed violated plaintiffs' rights to "some kind of hearing" to contest their inclusion in the child abuse index.

Yesterday, the Court granted cert in two cases, both significant:

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes (10-277), in which the Court agreed to review one question from the cert petition: "[w]hether claims for monetary relief can be certified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2)—which by its terms is limited to injunctive or corresponding declaratory relief—and, if so, under what circumstances"; and added one of its own: "[w]hether the class certification ordered under Rule 23(b)(2) [in this case] was consistent with Rule 23(a)." Every class action practitioner will be watching this one.

American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut (10-174), which presents the following questions: "(1) Whether States and private parties have standing to seek judicially-fashioned emissions caps on five utilities for their alleged contribution to harms claimed to arise from global climate change caused by more than a century of emissions by billions of independent sources. (2) Whether a cause of action to cap carbon dioxide emissions can be implied under federal common law where no statute creates such a cause of action, and the Clean Air Act speaks directly to the same subject matter and assigns federal responsibility for regulating such emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency. (3) Whether claims seeking to cap defendants' carbon dioxide emissions at ‘reasonable' levels, based on a court's weighing of the potential risks of climate change against the socioeconomic utility of defendants' conduct, would be governed by ‘judicially discoverable and manageable standards' or could be resolved without ‘initial policy determination[s] of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion.'"

Finally, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented from the denial of cert in Williams v. Hobbs, a habeas case involving a capital defendant. At trial, defense counsel had called only one witness during the penalty phase, who did not know the defendant personally, and who testified from his own experience that life was more pleasant on death row than in the general prison population. The defendant's direct appeal and state habeas petitions arguing ineffective assistance of counsel were unsuccessful. On federal habeas review, the district court found the State court's denial of the defendant's ineffective-assistance claim to be unreasonable, and conducted an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the defendant had been prejudiced by the ineffective assistance. The hearing revealed substantial mitigating evidence that could have been introduced during the penalty phase. The district court granted habeas relief on the strength of that evidence, but the Eighth Circuit reversed, finding that the defendant failed to prove prejudice based on facts before the State court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2) generally provides that courts shall not hold evidentiary hearings on a claim if a habeas petitioner has failed to develop the factual basis for the claim in State court proceedings. The Court declined to hear the case.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg would have taken the case and vacated the Eighth Circuit's judgment. The dissenters acknowledged that the State could have raised an objection under § 2254(e)(2) to stop the district court from holding the evidentiary hearing. But they disagreed with the Eighth Circuit's finding that the State had in fact objected. To the contrary, the record indicated that the State affirmatively consented to the hearing, and tried to use new evidence developed at the hearing to its own strategic advantage. The dissenters also disagreed with the Eighth Circuit's decision in the alternative, to exercise its discretion to consider the § 2254(e)(2) issue even if the State had not objected: "It is true . . . that the policy against evidentiary hearings in federal habeas promotes principles of comity and federalism…. But when the State voluntarily participates in a federal evidentiary hearing—without objection, with an apparent intent of supplementing the record for its own purposes, and at a significant cost and expenditure of judicial resources—those interests are significantly diminished if not altogether absent."

We wish we could end on a cheerier note. We do thank you for reading, and promise to be back with any new decisions and orders as they are released.

Kim & Jenny

From the Appellate and Complex Legal Issues Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana
For more information, contact Kim Rinehart or any other member of the Practice Group at 203-498-4400