471 U.S. 808 (1985), 83-1919, City of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle

Docket Nº:No. 83-1919
Citation:471 U.S. 808, 105 S.Ct. 2427, 85 L.Ed.2d 791, 53 U.S.L.W. 4639
Party Name:City of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle
Case Date:June 03, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 808

471 U.S. 808 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 2427, 85 L.Ed.2d 791, 53 U.S.L.W. 4639

City of Oklahoma City



No. 83-1919

United States Supreme Court

June 3, 1985

Argued January 8, 1985




An officer on petitioner city's police force shot and killed respondent's husband outside a bar in which a robbery had been reported in progress. Respondent brought suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the officer and petitioner, alleging that their actions had deprived her husband of certain constitutional rights. With respect to the liability of petitioner city, the trial judge informed the jury that petitioner could be held liable only if a municipal "policy" had caused the deprivation, and further instructed the jury that it could "infer," from

a single, unusually excessive use of force . . . that it was attributable to inadequate training or supervision amounting to "deliberate indifference" or "gross negligence" on the part of the officials in charge.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the officer but against petitioner, and awarded respondent damages. Rejecting petitioner's claim that the jury instruction was improper, the Court of Appeals held that proof of a single incident of unconstitutional activity by a police officer could suffice to establish municipal liability.

Held: The judgment is reversed.

728 F.2d 456, reversed.

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II, concluding that, where the question was not raised until she mentioned it in her brief on the merits in this Court and later at oral argument, it was too late for respondent to argue that the jury instruction issue was not properly preserved because petitioner failed to object at trial to the instruction in question with sufficient specificity to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 51. Nonjurisdictional defects of this sort should be brought to the Court's attention no later than in respondent's brief in opposition; if not, it is within the Court's discretion to deem the defect waived. Pp. 815-816.

JUSTICE REHNQUIST, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE O'CONNOR, delivered an opinion with respect to Part III, concluding that the instruction at issue improperly instructed the jury concerning the standard for imposing liability on municipalities under § 1983. The inference in the instruction was unwarranted in its assumption

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that the act at issue arose from inadequate training and in its further assumption concerning the state of mind of the municipal policymakers. More importantly, the inference allowed a § 1983 plaintiff to establish municipal liability without submitting proof of a single action taken by a municipal policymaker. [105 S.Ct. 2429] The requirement of Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, that municipal liability under § 1983 can only be imposed for injuries inflicted pursuant to government "policy or custom" makes it clear that, at the least, that requirement was intended to prevent the imposition of municipal liability under circumstances where no wrong could be ascribed to municipal decisionmakers. The fact that in this case respondent introduced independent evidence of inadequate training makes no difference, because the instruction allowed the jury to impose liability even if it did not believe respondent's expert witness' testimony that the police officer's training was inadequate. There must at the very least be an affirmative link between the municipality's policy and the particular constitutional violation alleged. Here, the jury instruction allowed the jury to infer a thoroughly nebulous "policy" of "inadequate training" on petitioner's part from the single incident in question, and at the same time sanctioned the inference that the "policy" was the cause of the incident. Pp. 816-824.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concluded that to infer the existence of a city policy from the misconduct of a single, low-level officer, as the jury instruction here allowed, and then to hold the city liable on the basis of that policy, would amount to permitting precisely the theory of strict respondeat superior liability rejected in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, supra. There may be many ways of proving the existence of a municipal policy or custom that can cause a deprivation of a constitutional right, but the scope of § 1983 liability does not permit such liability to be imposed merely on evidence of the wrongful actions of a single city employee not authorized to make city policy. Pp. 827-833.

REHNQUIST, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part III, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 824. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 834. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

Page 810

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST announced the judgment of the Court, and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II, and an opinion with respect to Part III in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE O'CONNOR joined.

In Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), this Court held that municipalities are "persons" subject to damages liability under § 1 of the Ku Klux Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for violations of that Act visited by municipal officials. The Court noted, however, that municipal liability could not be premised on the mere fact that the municipality employed the offending official. Instead, we held that municipal liability could only be imposed for injuries inflicted pursuant to government "policy or custom." Id. at 694. We noted at that time that we had "no occasion to address . . . the full contours of municipal immunity under § 1983 . . . ," id. at 695, and expressly left such development "to another day." Today we take a small but necessary step toward defining those contours.


On October 4, 1980, Officer Julian Rotramel, a member of the Oklahoma City police force, shot and killed Albert Tuttle outside the We'll Do Club, a bar in Oklahoma City. Officer Rotramel, who had been on the force for 10 months, had

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responded to an all-points bulletin indicating that there was a robbery in progress at the Club. The bulletin, in turn, was the product of an anonymous telephone call. The caller had reported the robbery in progress, and had described the robber and reported that the robber had a gun. The parties stipulated at trial that Tuttle had placed the call.

Rotramel was the first officer to reach the bar, and the testimony concerning what happened thereafter is sharply conflicting. Rotramel's version was that, when he entered [105 S.Ct. 2430] the bar, Tuttle walked toward him, and Rotramel grabbed Tuttle's arm and requested that he stay within the bar. Tuttle matched the description contained in the bulletin. Rotramel proceeded to question the barmaid concerning the reported robbery, but while doing so, he once again had to restrain Tuttle from leaving, this time by grabbing Tuttle's arm and holding it. The barmaid testified that she told Rotramel that no robbery had occurred. Rotramel testified that while he was questioning the barmaid, Tuttle kept bending towards his boots and attempting to squirm from the officer's grip. Tuttle finally broke away from Rotramel, and, ignoring the officer's commands to "halt," went outside. When Rotramel cleared the threshold to the outside door, he saw Tuttle crouched down on the sidewalk, with his hands in or near his boot. Rotramel again ordered Tuttle to halt, but when Tuttle started to come out of his crouch Rotramel discharged his weapon. Rotramel testified at trial that he believed Tuttle had removed a gun from his boot, and that his life was in danger. Tuttle died from the gunshot wound. When his boot was removed at the hospital prior to surgery, a toy pistol fell out.

Respondent Rose Marie Tuttle is Albert Tuttle's widow, and the administratrix of his estate. She brought suit under § 1983 in the United States District Court, Western District of Oklahoma, against Rotramel and the city, alleging that their actions had deprived Tuttle of certain of his constitutional rights. At trial, respondent introduced evidence concerning the facts surrounding the incident, and also adduced

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testimony from an expert in police training practices. The expert testified that, based upon Rotramel's conduct during the incident in question and the expert's review of the Oklahoma City police training curriculum, it was his opinion that Rotramel's training was grossly inadequate. Respondent introduced no evidence that Rotramel or any other member of the Oklahoma City police force had been involved in a similar incident.

The case was presented to the jury on the theory that Rotramel's act had deprived Tuttle of life without due process of law, or that he had violated Tuttle's rights by using "excessive force in his apprehension." App. 38. With respect to respondent's suit against Rotramel individually, the jury was charged that Rotramel was entitled to qualified immunity to the extent that he had acted in good faith and with a reasonable belief that his actions were lawful.1 Respondent also sought to hold the city liable under Monell, presumably on the theory that a municipal "custom or policy" had led to the constitutional violations. With respect to municipal liability, the trial judge instructed the jury:

If a police officer denies a person his...

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