485 U.S. 112 (1988), 86-772, City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik

Docket Nº:No. 86-772
Citation:485 U.S. 112, 108 S.Ct. 915, 99 L.Ed.2d 107, 56 U.S.L.W. 4201
Party Name:City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik
Case Date:March 02, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court

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485 U.S. 112 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 915, 99 L.Ed.2d 107, 56 U.S.L.W. 4201

City of St. Louis



No. 86-772

United States Supreme Court

March 2, 1988

Argued October 7, 1987




Two years after respondent, a management-level employee in one of petitioner city's agencies, successfully appealed a temporary suspension to petitioner's Civil Service Commission (Commission), he was transferred to a clerical position in another city agency, from which he was laid off the next year. In respondent's suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the jury found petitioner liable on the theory that respondent's First Amendment rights had been violated through retaliatory actions taken in response to his suspension appeal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment entered on this verdict, finding that the jury had implicitly determined that respondent's layoff was brought about by an unconstitutional city policy. Applying a test under which a "policymaker" is one whose employment decisions are "final" in the sense that they are not subjected to de novo review by higher ranking officials, the court concluded that petitioner could be held liable for adverse personnel decisions made by respondent's supervisors.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

798 F.2d 1168, reversed and remanded.


1. Petitioner's failure to timely object under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 51 to a jury instruction on municipalities' § 1983 liability for their employees' unconstitutional acts does not deprive this Court of jurisdiction to determine the proper legal standard for imposing such liability. The same legal issue was raised by petitioner's motions for summary judgment and a directed verdict, was considered and decided by the Court of Appeals, and is likely to recur in § 1983 litigation against municipalities. Review in this Court will not undermine the policy of judicial efficiency that underlies Rule 51. Pp. 118-121.

2. The Court of Appeals applied an incorrect legal standard for determining when isolated decisions by municipal officials or employees may expose the municipality to § 1983 liability. The identification of officials having "final policymaking authority" is a question of state (including local) law, rather than a question of fact for the jury. Here, it appears that petitioner's City Charter gives the authority to set employment policy to the Mayor and Aldermen, who are empowered to enact ordinances,

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and to the Commission, whose function is to hear employees' appeals. Petitioner cannot be held liable unless respondent proved the existence of an unconstitutional policy promulgated by officials having such authority. The Mayor and Aldermen did not enact an ordinance permitting retaliatory transfers or layoffs. Nor has the Commission indicated that such actions were permissible; it has, on the contrary, granted respondent at least partial relief in a series of appeals from adverse personnel decisions. The Court of Appeals' findings that the decisions of respondent's supervisors were not individually reviewed for "substantive propriety" by higher supervisory officials, and were accorded substantial deference by the Commission on appeal, are insufficient to support the conclusion that the supervisors had been delegated the authority to establish transfer and layoff policy. When a subordinate's discretionary decisions are constrained or subjected to review by authorized policymakers, they, and not the subordinate, have final policymaking authority. Positing a delegation based on their mere acquiescence in, or failure to investigate the basis of, the subordinate's decisions does not serve § 1983's purposes where (as here) the wrongfulness of those decisions arises from a retaliatory motive or other unstated rationale. Pp. 122-131.

[108 S.Ct. 919] JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE BLACKMUN, agreed that respondent's supervisor at his first agency did not possess delegated authority to establish final employment policy such that petitioner could be held liable under § 1983 for the allegedly unlawful decision to transfer respondent to a dead-end job, but concluded that, in any case in which the policymaking authority of a municipal tortfeasor is in doubt, although state law will naturally be the appropriate starting point, ultimately the factfinder must determine where such policymaking authority actually resides, and not simply where the applicable state law purports to put it. JUSTICE BRENNAN also concluded that the "custom or usage" doctrine cannot compensate for the inherent inflexibility of an approach that relies exclusively on state law, for that doctrine simply does not apply to isolated unconstitutional acts by subordinates having de facto, but not statutory, final policymaking authority; that a subordinate's decisions are not rendered nonfinal simply because they are subject to some form of review, however limited; and that the question is open whether a municipality can be subjected to liability for a policy that, while not unconstitutional in and of itself, may give rise to constitutional deprivations. Pp. 132-147.

O'CONNOR, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined U.S. 132. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting

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opinion, post, p. 147. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE O'CONNOR announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE SCALIA join.

This case calls upon us to define the proper legal standard for determining when isolated decisions by municipal officials or employees may expose the municipality itself to liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.


The principal facts are not in dispute. Respondent James H. Praprotnik is an architect who began working for petitioner city of St. Louis in 1968. For several years, respondent consistently received favorable evaluations of his job performance, uncommonly quick promotions, and significant increases in salary. By 1980, he was serving in a management-level city planning position at petitioner's Community Development Agency (CDA).

The Director of CDA, Donald Spaid, had instituted a requirement that the agency's professional employees, including architects, obtain advance approval before taking on private clients. Respondent and other CDA employees objected

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to the requirement. In April, 1980, respondent was suspended for 15 days by CDA's Director of Urban Design, Charles Kindleberger, for having accepted outside employment without prior approval. Respondent appealed to the city's Civil Service Commission, a body charged with reviewing employee grievances. Finding the penalty too harsh, the Commission reversed the suspension, awarded respondent backpay, and directed that he be reprimanded for having failed to secure a clear understanding of the rule.

The Commission's decision was not well received by respondent's supervisors at CDA. Kindleberger later testified that he believed respondent had lied to the Commission, and that Spaid was angry with respondent.

[108 S.Ct. 920] Respondent's next two annual job performance evaluations were markedly less favorable than those in previous years. In discussing one of these evaluations with respondent, Kindleberger apparently mentioned his displeasure with respondent's 1980 appeal to the Civil Service Commission. Respondent appealed both evaluations to the Department of Personnel. In each case, the Department ordered partial relief and was upheld by the city's Director of Personnel or the Civil Service Commission.

In April, 1981, a new Mayor came into office, and Donald Spaid was replaced as Director of CDA by Frank Hamsher. As a result of budget cuts, a number of layoffs and transfers significantly reduced the size of CDA and of the planning section in which respondent worked. Respondent, however, was retained.

In the spring of 1982, a second round of layoffs and transfers occurred at CDA. At that time, the city's Heritage and Urban Design Commission (Heritage) was seeking approval to hire someone who was qualified in architecture and urban planning. Hamsher arranged with the Director of Heritage, Henry Jackson, for certain functions to be transferred from CDA to Heritage. This arrangement, which made it possible for Heritage to employ a relatively high-level "city planning

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manager," was approved by Jackson's supervisor, Thomas Nash. Hamsher then transferred respondent to Heritage to fill this position.

Respondent objected to the transfer, and appealed to the Civil Service Commission. The Commission declined to hear the appeal because respondent had not suffered a reduction in his pay or grade. Respondent then filed suit in Federal District Court, alleging that the transfer was unconstitutional. The city was named as a defendant, along with Kindleberger, Hamsher, Jackson (whom respondent deleted from the list before trial), and Deborah Patterson, who had succeeded Hamsher at CDA.

At Heritage, respondent became embroiled in a series of disputes with Jackson and Jackson's successor, Robert Killen. Respondent was dissatisfied with the work he was assigned, which consisted of unchallenging clerical functions far below the level of responsibilities that he had previously enjoyed. At least one adverse personnel decision was taken against respondent, and he obtained partial relief after appealing that decision.

In December 1983, respondent was laid off from Heritage. The layoff was attributed to a lack of funds, and...

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