454 U.S. 312 (1981), 80-824, Polk County v. Dodson

Docket Nº:No. 80-824
Citation:454 U.S. 312, 102 S.Ct. 445, 70 L.Ed.2d 509
Party Name:Polk County v. Dodson
Case Date:December 14, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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454 U.S. 312 (1981)

102 S.Ct. 445, 70 L.Ed.2d 509

Polk County

v.

Dodson

No. 80-824

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 14, 1981

Argued October 13, 1981

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent brought suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against petitioners Polk County, its Offender Advocate, its Board of Supervisors, and Martha Shepard, an attorney in the Offender Advocate's Office. As the factual basis for his lawsuit, respondent alleged that Shepard, who had been assigned to represent him in an appeal of a criminal conviction to the Iowa Supreme Court, failed to represent him adequately, since she had moved for permission to withdraw as counsel on the ground that respondent's claims were legally frivolous. The Iowa Supreme Court granted Shepard's motion and dismissed respondent's appeal. In the District Court, respondent alleged that Shepard's actions violated certain of his constitutional rights. To establish that Shepard acted "under color of state law," a jurisdictional requisite for a § 1983 action, respondent relied on her employment by the county. The District Court dismissed the claims against all of the petitioners, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

Held:

1. A public defender does not act "under color of state law" when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to an indigent defendant in a state criminal proceeding. Because it was based on such activities, the complaint against Shepard must be dismissed. Pp. 317-325.

(a) From the moment of Shepard's assignment to represent respondent, their relationship became identical to that existing between any other lawyer and client, except for the source of Shepard's payment. The legal system posits that a defense lawyer best serves the public not by acting on the State's behalf or in concert with it, but rather by advancing the undivided interests of the client. This is essentially a private function for which state office and authority are not needed. Pp. 317-319.

(b) Cases in which this Court assumed that state-employed doctors serving in supervisory capacities at state institutions could be held liable under § 1983 are not controlling. O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563, and Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, distinguished. Pp. 319-320.

(c) Although the employment relationship between the State and a public defender is a relevant factor, it is insufficient to establish that a

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public defender acts under color of state law within the meaning of § 1983. A public defender is not amenable to administrative direction in the same sense as other state employees. And equally important, it is the State's constitutional obligation to respect the professional independence of the public defenders whom it engages. Pp. 320-322.

(d) It is the ethical obligation of any lawyer -- whether privately retained or publicly appointed -- not to clog the courts with frivolous motions or appeals. Respondent has no legitimate complaint that Shepard failed to prosecute a frivolous appeal on his behalf. Pp. 322-324.

2. Respondent has not alleged unconstitutional action by Polk County, its Offender Advocate, or its Board of Supervisors. To the extent that his claims rest on a respondeat superior theory of liability, they fail to present a claim under 1983. And a constitutional tort actionable under § 1983 is not described by the bald allegations that Shepard had injured respondent while acting pursuant to administrative rules and procedures, and that the county "retains and maintains, advocates out of law school" who have on numerous occasions moved to withdraw from appeals of convictions. Respondent failed to allege any administrative policy that arguably caused a violation of his rights under the Sixth, Eighth, or Fourteenth Amendments. An official,policy of withdrawal from frivolous cases would not violate the Constitution. Pp. 325-327.

628 F.2d 1104, reversed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 327. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 328.

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POWELL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether a public defender acts "under color of state law" when representing an indigent defendant in a state criminal proceeding.

I

This case arose when the respondent Russell Richard Dodson filed a pro se complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. Dodson brought the action in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As the factual basis for his lawsuit, Dodson alleged that Martha Shepard, an attorney in the Polk County Offender Advocate's Office, had failed to represent him adequately in an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.1

[102 S.Ct. 448] A full-time employee of the county, Shepard had been assigned to represent Dodson in the appeal of a conviction for robbery. After inquiring into the case, however, she moved for permission to withdraw as counsel on the ground that Dodson's claims were wholly frivolous.2 Shepard accompanied her motion with an affidavit explaining this conclusion.

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She also filed a memorandum summarizing Dodson's claims and the supporting legal arguments. On November 9, 1979, the Iowa Supreme Court granted the motion to withdraw and dismissed Dodson's appeal.

In his complaint in the District Court, the respondent alleged that Shepard's actions, especially her motion to withdraw, had deprived him of his right to counsel, subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment, and denied him due process of law.3 He sought injunctive relief as well as damages in the amount of $175,000. To establish that Shepard acted "under color of state law," a jurisdictional requisite for a § 1983 action, Dodson relied on her employment by the county. Dodson also sued Polk County, the Polk County Offender Advocate, and the Polk County Board of Supervisors. He alleged that the Offender Advocate and the Board of Supervisors had established the rules and procedures that Shepard was bound to follow in handling criminal appeals.

The District Court dismissed Dodson's claims against all defendants. 483 F.Supp. 347 (1979). It held that the relevant actions by Shepard had not occurred under color of state law. Canvassing the leading authorities, it reasoned that a public defender owes a duty of undivided loyalty to his client. A public defender therefore could not be sued as an agent of the State. The District Court dismissed the Offender Advocate from the suit on the same theory. It also held

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that Dodson's complaint failed to allege the requisite personal involvement to state a § 1983 claim against Polk County and the Board of Supervisors.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. 628 F.2d 1104 (1980). Like the District Court, it assumed that a public defender owed his client the same responsibility as any other attorney. In its view, however, the "dispositive point" was that Iowa Offender Advocates were "employees of the County," which was "merely a creature of the State." Whether public defenders received instructions from county officials was "beside the point."

Public defenders receive their power not because they are selected by their clients, but because they are employed by the County to represent a certain class of clients, who [102 S.Ct. 449] likely have little or no choice in selecting the lawyer who will defend them.

Id. at 1106. In holding as it did on this issue, the court recognized that its decision conflicted with the holdings of a number of other Courts of Appeals. Reasoning that Dodson's pro se complaint should be liberally construed, the court also ordered reinstatement of the § 1983 claims against the Offender Advocate and the Board of Supervisors. The question of their involvement was left for factual development in the District Court. In addition, the court ordered that Dodson be given an opportunity on remand to state his claim against the county with greater specificity. Finally, the court rejected the argument that a public defender should enjoy the same immunity provided to judges and prosecutors. It held that the defendants were entitled to a defense of "good faith," but not of "absolute," immunity.

One member of the panel filed a dissent. The dissent argued that a person acts under color of state law only when exercising powers created by the authority of the State. In this case, it reasoned, the alleged wrongs were not made possible only because the defendant was a public defender. In

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essence, the complaint asserted an ordinary malpractice claim, which would be equally maintainable against a retained attorney or appointed counsel. The dissent also argued that public defenders should be entitled to absolute immunity from suit.

We granted certiorari to resolve the division among the Courts of Appeals over whether a public defender acts under color of state law when providing representation to an indigent client.4 450 U.S. 963 (1981). We now reverse.

II

In United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 326 (1941), this Court held that a person acts under color of state law only when exercising power "possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the

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authority of state law."5 In this case, the Offender Advocate for Polk County assigned Martha Shepard to represent Russell Dodson in the appeal of his criminal conviction. This assignment entailed functions and obligations in no way dependent on state authority. From the moment of her appointment, Shepard...

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