503 U.S. 115 (1992), 90-1279, Collins v. City of Harker Heights

Docket Nº:No. 90-1279
Citation:503 U.S. 115, 112 S.Ct. 1061, 117 L.Ed.2d 261, 60 U.S.L.W. 4182
Party Name:Collins v. City of Harker Heights
Case Date:February 26, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 115

503 U.S. 115 (1992)

112 S.Ct. 1061, 117 L.Ed.2d 261, 60 U.S.L.W. 4182

Collins

v.

City of Harker Heights

No. 90-1279

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 26, 1992

Argued Nov. 5, 1991

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Larry Collins, an employee in respondent city's sanitation department, died of asphyxia after entering a manhole to unstop a sewer line. Petitioner, his widow, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, inter alia, that Collins had a right under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment

to be free from unreasonable risks of harm . . . and . . . to be protected from the [city's] custom and policy of deliberate indifference toward [its employees'] safety;

that the city had violated that right by following a custom and policy of not training its employees about the dangers of working in sewers and not providing safety equipment and warnings; and that the city had systematically and intentionally failed to provide the equipment and training required by a Texas statute. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that it did not allege a constitutional violation. Without reaching the question whether the city had violated Collins' constitutional rights, the Court of Appeals affirmed on the theory that there had been no "abuse of governmental power," which the court found to be a necessary element of a § 1983 action.

Held: Because a city's customary failure to train or warn its employees about known hazards in the workplace does not violate the Due Process Clause, § 1983 does not provide a remedy for a municipal employee who is fatally injured in the course of his employment as a result of the city's failure. Pp. 119-130.

(a) This Court's cases do not support the Court of Appeals' reading of § 1983 as requiring an abuse of governmental power separate and apart from the proof of a constitutional violation. Contrary to that court's analysis, neither the fact that Collins was a government employee nor the characterization of the city's deliberate indifference to his safety as something other than an "abuse of governmental power" is a sufficient reason for refusing to entertain petitioner's federal claim under § 1983. Proper analysis requires that two issues be separated when a § 1983 claim is asserted against a municipality: (1) whether plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation, and (2) if so, whether the city is responsible for that violation. Pp. 119-120.

(b) It is assumed for the purpose of decision that the complaint's use of the term "deliberate indifference" to characterize the city's failure to

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train its sanitation department employees is sufficient to hold the city responsible if the complaint has also alleged a constitutional violation. See Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378. Pp. 120-124.

(c) The complaint has not alleged a constitutional violation. Neither the Due Process [112 S.Ct. 1064] Clause's text -- which, inter alia, guarantees due process in connection with any deprivation of liberty by a State -- nor its history supports petitioner's unprecedented claim that the Clause imposes an independent substantive duty upon municipalities to provide certain minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace. Although the "process" that the Clause guarantees includes a continuing obligation to satisfy certain minimal custodial standards for those who have already been deprived of their liberty, petitioner cannot maintain that the city deprived Collins of his liberty when it made, and he voluntarily accepted, an employment offer. Also unpersuasive is petitioner's claim that the city's alleged failure to train its employees, or to warn them about known risks of harm, was an omission that can properly be characterized as arbitrary, or conscience-shocking, in a constitutional sense. Petitioner's claim is analogous to a fairly typical tort claim under state law, which is not supplanted by the Due Process Clause, see e.g., Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 332-333, particularly in the area of public employment, see, e.g., Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 350. In light of the presumption that the administration of Government programs is based on a rational decisionmaking process that takes account of competing forces, decisions concerning the allocation of resources to individual programs, such as sewer maintenance, and to particular aspects of those programs, such as employee training, involve a host of policy choices that must be made by locally elected representatives, rather than by federal judges interpreting the country's basic charter of Government. For the same reasons, petitioner's suggestion that the Texas Hazard Communication Act supports her substantive due process claim is rejected. Pp. 125-130.

916 F.2d 284 (CA5 1990), affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, provides a remedy for a municipal employee who is fatally injured in the course of his employment because the city customarily failed to train or warn its employees about known hazards in the workplace. Even though the city's conduct may be actionable under state law, we hold that § 1983 does not apply, because such conduct does not violate the Due Process Clause.

On October 21, 1988, Larry Michael Collins, an employee in the sanitation department of the city of Harker Heights, Texas, died of asphyxia after entering a manhole to unstop a sewer line. Petitioner, his widow, brought this action alleging that Collins

had a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable risks of harm to his body, mind and emotions and a constitutional right to be protected from the city of Harker Heights' custom and policy of deliberate indifference toward the safety of its employees.

App. 7. Her complaint alleged that the city violated that right by following a custom and policy of not training its employees about the dangers of working in sewer lines and manholes, not providing safety equipment at job sites, and not providing safety warnings. The complaint also alleged that a prior incident

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had given the city notice of the risks of entering the sewer lines,[1] and that the city had systematically and intentionally failed to provide the equipment and training required by a Texas statute. Ibid. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that a constitutional violation had not been alleged. No. W-89-CA-168 (W.D.Tex., Oct. 30, 1988), App. 20. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed on a different theory. 916 F.2d 284 (CA5 1990). It did not reach the question whether the city had violated Collins' constitutional rights, because it denied recovery on the ground that there had been no "abuse of governmental power," which the Fifth Circuit had found to be a necessary element of a § 1983 action.[2] Id. at 287-288, and n. 3.

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The contrary decision in Ruge v. City of Bellevue, 892 F.2d 738 (CA8 1989), together with our concern about the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the statute, prompted our grant of certiorari, 499 U.S. 958 (1991).

I

Our cases do not support the Court of Appeals' reading of § 1983 as requiring proof of an abuse of governmental power separate and apart from the proof of a constitutional violation. Although the statute provides the citizen with an effective remedy against those abuses of state power that violate federal law, it does not provide a remedy for abuses that do not violate federal law, see, e.g., Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277 (1980); DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989). More importantly, the statute does not draw any distinction between abusive and nonabusive federal violations.

The Court of Appeals' analysis rests largely on the fact that the city had, through allegedly tortious conduct, harmed one of its employees, rather than an ordinary citizen over whom it exercised governmental power. The employment relationship, however, is not of controlling significance. On the one hand, if the city had pursued a policy of equally deliberate...

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