Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit

Citation113 S.Ct. 1160,122 L.Ed.2d 517,507 U.S. 163
Decision Date03 March 1993
Docket NumberNo. 91-1657,91-1657
PartiesCharlene LEATHERMAN, et al., Petitioners v. TARRANT COUNTY NARCOTICS INTELLIGENCE AND COORDINATION UNIT et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus *

Petitioner homeowners filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against respondents—local officials acting in their official capacity, a county, and two municipal corporations—alleging that the conduct of local police officers in searching their homes for narcotics violated the Fourth Amendment, and asserting that the basis for municipal liability was the failure adequately to train the police officers involved. The Federal District Court dismissed the complaints because they failed to meet the "heightened pleading standard" adopted by the Court of Appeals, which requires that complaints against municipal corporations in § 1983 cases state with factual detail and particularity the basis for the claim. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: A federal court may not apply a "heightened pleading standard"—more stringent than the usual pleading requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)—in civil rights cases alleging municipal liability under § 1983. First, the heightened standard cannot be justified on the ground that a more relaxed pleading standard would eviscerate municipalities' immunity from suit by subjecting them to expensive and time-consuming discovery in every § 1983 case. Municipalities, although free from respondeat superior liability under § 1983, see Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611, do not enjoy absolute or qualified immunity from § 1983 suits, id., at 701, 98 S.Ct., at 2041; Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 650, 100 S.Ct. 1398, 1415, 63 L.Ed.2d 673. Second, it is not possible to square the heightened standard applied in this case with the liberal system of "notice pleading" set up by the Federal Rules. Rule 8(a)(2) requires that a complaint include only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." And while Rule 9(b) requires greater particularity in pleading certain actions, it does not include among the enumerated actions any reference to complaints alleging municipal liability under § 1983. Pp. ____.

954 F.2d 1054 (CA5 1992), reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Richard Gladden, Denton, TX, for petitioners.

Brett A. Ringle, Dallas, TX, for respondents.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether a federal court may apply a "heightened pleading standard"—more stringent than the usual pleading requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure—in civil rights cases alleging municipal liability under Rev.Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. We hold it may not.

We review here a decision granting a motion to dismiss, and therefore must accept as true all the factual allegations in the complaint. See United States v. Gaubert, 499 U.S. ----, ----, 111 S.Ct. 1267, ----, 113 L.Ed.2d 335 (1991). This action arose out of two separate incidents involving the execution of search warrants by local law enforcement officers. Each involved the forcible entry into a home based on the detection of odors associated with the manufacture of narcotics. One homeowner claimed that he was assaulted by the officers after they had entered; another claimed that the police had entered her home in her absence and killed her two dogs. Plaintiffs sued several local officials in their official capacity and the county and two municipal corporations that employed the police officers involved in the incidents, asserting that the police conduct had violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The stated basis for municipal liability under Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), was the failure of these bodies adequately to train the police officers involved. See Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 109 S.Ct. 1197, 103 L.Ed.2d 412 (1989).

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas ordered the complaints dismissed, because they failed to meet the "heightened pleading standard" required by the decisional law of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. 755 F.Supp. 726 (1991). The Fifth Circuit, in turn, affirmed the judgment of dismissal, 954 F.2d 1054 (1992), and we granted certiorari, 505 U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 2989, 120 L.Ed.2d 867 (1992), to resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals concerning the applicability of a heightened pleading standard to § 1983 actions alleging municipal liability. Compare, e.g., Karim-Panahi v. Los Angeles Police Dept., 839 F.2d 621, 624 (CA9 1988) ("a claim of municipal liability under section 1983 is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss even if the claim is based on nothing more than a bare allegation that the individual officers' conduct conformed to official policy, custom, or practice") (internal quotation marks omitted). We now reverse.

Respondents seek to defend the Fifth Circuit's application of a more rigorous pleading standard on two grounds.** First, respondents claim that municipalities' freedom from respondeat superior liability, see Monell, supra, necessarily includes immunity from suit. In this sense, respondents assert, municipalities are no different from state or local officials sued in their individual capacity. Respondents reason that a more relaxed pleading requirement would subject municipalities to expensive and time consuming discovery in every § 1983 case, eviscerating their immunity from suit and disrupting municipal functions.

This argument wrongly equates freedom from liability with immunity from suit. To be sure, we reaffirmed in Monell that "a municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a respondeat superior theory." 436 U.S., at 691, 98 S.Ct., at 2036. But, contrary to respondents' assertions, this protection against liability does not encompass immunity from suit. Indeed, this argument is flatly contradicted by Monell and our later decisions involving municipal liability under § 1983. In Monell, we overruled Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961), insofar as it held that local governments were wholly immune from suit under § 1983, though we did reserve decision on whether municipalities are entitled to some form of limited immunity. 436 U.S., at 701, 98 S.Ct., at 2041. Yet, when we took that issue up again in Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 650, 100 S.Ct. 1398, 1415, 63 L.Ed.2d 673 (1980), we rejected a claim that municipalities should be afforded qualified immunity, much like that afforded individual officials, based on the good faith of their agents. These decisions make it quite clear that, unlike various government officials, municipalities do not enjoy immunity from suit—either absolute or qualified —under § 1983. In short, a municipality can be sued under § 1983, but it cannot be held liable unless a municipal policy or custom caused the constitutional injury. We thus have no occasion to consider whether our qualified immunity jurisprudence would require a heightened pleading in cases involving individual government officials.

Second, respondents contend that the Fifth Circuit's heightened pleading standard is not really that at all. See Brief for Respondents Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit et al. 9-10 ("[T]he Fifth Circuit's so-called 'heightened' pleading requirement is a misnomer"). According to respondents, the degree of factual specificity required of a complaint by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure varies according to the complexity of the underlying substantive law. To establish municipal liability under § 1983, respondents argue, a plaintiff must do more than plead a single instance of misconduct. This requirement, respondents insist, is consistent with a plaintiff's Rule 11 obligation to make a reasonable pre-filing inquiry into the facts.

But examination of the Fifth Circuit's decision in this case makes it quite evident that the "heightened pleading standard" is just what it purports to be: a more demanding rule for pleading a complaint under § 1983 than for pleading other kinds of claims for...

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