Atchinson v. District of Columbia, 94-7195

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
Citation73 F.3d 418,315 U.S. App. D.C. 318
Docket NumberNo. 94-7195,94-7195
Parties, 33 Fed.R.Serv.3d 1033 Richard ATCHINSON, Appellant v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Appellees.
Decision Date19 January 1996

Arthur B. Spitzer, argued the cause for appellant, with whom Bonita T. Rudd, Washington, DC and Stephen M. Block, Houston, TX, were on the briefs.

Martin B. White, Assistant Corporation Counsel, argued the cause for appellee, with whom Garland Pinkston, Jr., Acting Corporation Counsel, Charles L. Reischel, Deputy Corporation Counsel, and Lutz A. Prager, Assistant Deputy Corporation Counsel, were on the brief. Erias A. Hyman and Mary L. Wilson, Assistant Corporation Counsel, Washington, DC, entered appearances for appellee.

Before: BUCKLEY, GINSBURG, and TATEL, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge TATEL.

TATEL, Circuit Judge:

In this action by a victim of a police shooting, we consider the pleading requirements for a complaint alleging that a municipality violated a plaintiff's civil rights by failing to train or supervise its police officers. Applying the Supreme Court's holding in Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 113 S.Ct. 1160, 122 L.Ed.2d 517 (1993), that plaintiffs alleging municipal liability under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 need not satisfy any heightened pleading standard, we reverse the district court's dismissal of appellant's civil rights claims against the District of Columbia. We find no abuse of discretion, however, in the district court's denial of appellant's motion to amend his complaint to name a defendant police officer, sued initially in his official capacity only, in his individual capacity as well.


According to the complaint, shortly after noon on August 14, 1991, appellant Richard Atchinson was walking along a Chinatown street in the District of Columbia carrying a machete that he had just purchased at a surplus store. Hearing someone say "freeze," Atchinson turned around to see two uniformed police officers across the street. Without further warning, one of the officers fired his gun, shooting Atchinson in the abdomen. Seriously injured, Atchinson required hospitalization and surgery. Atchinson was charged with assault on a police officer, but the charge was later dropped.

Atchinson filed suit in United States district court against the District of Columbia, the Mayor, the Chief of Police, the officer who shot him--Benjamin Collins--and other officers involved in the shooting, bringing both common-law tort claims and federal claims under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 and the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The complaint stated that "[d]efendants who are individuals are sued solely in their official capacity."

The district court dismissed the claims against the Mayor and the Chief of Police, ruling that the complaint failed to meet this circuit's heightened pleading standard for allegations of constitutional violations by government officials carrying out discretionary functions. Atchinson v. District of Columbia, No. 92-1862, slip op. at 2-5 (D.D.C. Dec. 23, 1992) (mem.) (citing Hunter v. District of Columbia, 943 F.2d 69, 75 (D.C.Cir.1991); Martin v. Malhoyt, 830 F.2d 237, 254 & nn. 40-41 (D.C.Cir.1987)). The district court also dismissed the federal claims against the District of Columbia, finding that Atchinson had failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. Id. at 5-8. The court explained that Atchinson's respondeat superior claim against the District failed under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 691-94, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2036-38, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). As for Atchinson's other section 1983 claims against the District of Columbia--the claims at issue in this appeal--the court ruled that the complaint "failed to state with specificity an unconstitutional policy, custom, or procedure of the District of Columbia" responsible for his injuries. Atchinson, slip op. at 6-7 (Dec. 23, 1992) (citing Monell, 436 U.S. at 690, 694, 98 S.Ct. at 2035-36, 2037-38).

After the district court dismissed these claims, the Supreme Court announced in Leatherman that complaints alleging municipal liability under section 1983 need not satisfy any heightened pleading standard. See Leatherman, 507 U.S. at 163-65, 113 S.Ct. at 1161. Relying on Leatherman, Atchinson filed a motion for reconsideration, charging that the district court had applied a heightened pleading standard in dismissing his section 1983 claims against the District.

Shortly before trial was scheduled to begin, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the section 1983 claims against Officer Collins in his official capacity, contending that those claims were identical to the claims against the District of Columbia that the court had previously dismissed. Noting that the dismissal of the section 1983 claims against Officer Collins would leave no federal claims in the case, the defendants asked the district court to dismiss the entire case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The district court denied Atchinson's Leatherman motion, dismissed the federal claims against Officer Collins in his official capacity, and denied Atchinson leave to amend his complaint to name the officer in his individual capacity. Atchinson v. District of Columbia, No. 92-1862 (D.D.C. June 16, 1994) (mem.). Agreeing with defendants that the dismissal of all federal claims left it without subject matter jurisdiction over the common-law claims, the district court dismissed the entire case with prejudice. Id., slip op. at 6-7, 9. The court later denied a motion for reconsideration. Atchinson v. District of Columbia, No. 92-1862 (D.D.C. Aug. 23, 1994) (mem.).

Atchinson appeals the dismissal of his section 1983 claims against the District of Columbia. He also challenges the district court's denial of his request to amend his complaint to name Officer Collins in his individual capacity.


The Supreme Court has read section 1983 as placing sharp restrictions on suits against municipalities, particularly actions like the one at issue here that allege a failure to train. In Monell, the Court held that a municipality can be liable as a "person" under section 1983 only if the municipality is itself responsible for an unconstitutional deprivation of rights. 436 U.S. at 690-91, 98 S.Ct. at 2035-36. Although a municipality's liability under section 1983 thus cannot rest on a respondeat superior theory, id. at 691, 98 S.Ct. at 2036, a municipality can be liable under section 1983 "when execution of a government's policy or custom ... inflicts [an] injury," id. at 694, 98 S.Ct. at 2037-38 (emphasis added). Taking the issue one step further in City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S 378, 109 S.Ct. 1197, 103 L.Ed.2d 412 (1989), the Court explained "that there are limited circumstances in which an allegation of a 'failure to train' can be the basis for [municipal] liability under section 1983." Id. at 387, 109 S.Ct. at 1204.

Proving a failure-to-train claim is no easy task. A section 1983 plaintiff must show that the alleged inadequate training "represent[s] 'city policy,' " id. at 390, 109 S.Ct. at 1205, and that the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of the allegedly injured plaintiffs, id. at 388-92, 109 S.Ct. at 1204-07. Because "[p]roof of a single incident of unconstitutional activity is not sufficient to impose liability under Monell " absent proof that the activity was caused by a municipal policy, City of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 823-24, 105 S.Ct. 2427, 2436-37, 85 L.Ed.2d 791 (1985) (plurality); accord id. at 833, 105 S.Ct. at 2441 (Brennan, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment), a plaintiff cannot prevail simply by showing that a single officer was inadequately trained, Canton, 489 U.S. at 390-91, 109 S.Ct. at 1205-06. Furthermore, a plaintiff must demonstrate a close link between the alleged injury and the alleged deficiency in training. See id. at 391, 109 S.Ct. at 1206.

Despite these hurdles, the Court has identified some circumstances that would support claims based on a municipality's failure to train its police officers. A municipality's failure to perform the " 'obvious[ly]' " necessary task of training its officers "in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force" is one such example. Id. at 390 n. 10, 109 S.Ct. at 1205 n. 10 (citing Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985)). Another is where the frequency of constitutional violations makes "the need for further training ... plainly obvious to the city policymakers." Id.

Because of the strict requirements of section 1983, several courts of appeals, prior to Leatherman, had adopted a "heightened pleading standard" applicable to claims alleging municipal liability under section 1983. E.g., Palmer v. City of San Antonio, 810 F.2d 514, 516-17 (5th Cir.1987). Our case law supported such a heightened pleading standard. See, e.g., Hunter, 943 F.2d at 75-76; Andrews v. Wilkins, 934 F.2d 1267, 1269-70 (D.C.Cir.1991); Hobson v. Wilson, 737 F.2d 1, 29-30 (D.C.Cir.1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1084, 105 S.Ct. 1843, 85 L.Ed.2d 142 (1985).

In 1993, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Leatherman that plaintiffs alleging municipal liability under section 1983 may not be held to a heightened pleading standard. 507 U.S. at 163-69, 113 S.Ct. at 1161-63. According to the Court, section 1983 claims are not "subject[ ] to the added specificity requirement of Rule 9(b)," id. at 167-69, 113 S.Ct. at 1163, which requires pleading "with particularity" for claims of fraud or mistake, Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b). Leatherman thus makes clear that a complaint alleging municipal liability under section 1983 for failure to train is to be judged not by the standards that would govern a decision on the merits, but by the liberal standard of Rule 8....

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