Owen v. City of Independence, Missouri

Decision Date16 April 1980
Docket NumberNo. 78-1779,78-1779
PartiesGeorge D. OWEN, Petitioner, v. CITY OF INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

After the City Council of respondent city moved that reports of an investigation of the city police department be released to the news media and turned over to the prosecutor for presentation to the grand jury and that the City Manager take appropriate action against the persons involved in the wrongful activities brought out in the investigative reports, the City Manager discharged petitioner from his position as Chief of Police. No reason was given for the dismissal and petitioner received only a written notice stating that the dismissal was made pursuant to a specified provision of the city charter. Subsequently, petitioner brought suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the city, the respondent City Manager, and the respondent members of the City Council in their official capacities, alleging that he was discharged without notice of reasons and without a hearing in violation of his constitutional rights to procedural and substantive due process, and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The District Court, after a bench trial, entered judgment for respondents. The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed, holding that although the city had violated petitioner's rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, nevertheless all the respondents, including the city, were entitled to qualified immunity from liability based on the good faith of the city officials involved.

Held: A municipality has no immunity from liability under § 1983 flowing from its constitutional violations and may not assert the good faith of its officers as a defense to such liability. Pp. 635-658.

(a) By its terms, § 1983 "creates a species of tort liability that on its face admits of no immunities." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 417, 96 S.Ct. 984, 998, 47 L.Ed.2d 128. Its language is absolute and unqualified, and no mention is made of any privileges, immunities, or defenses that may be asserted. Rather, the statute imposes liability upon "every person" (held in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611, to encompass municipal corporations) who, under color of state law or custom, "subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." And this expansive sweep of § 1983's language is confirmed by its legislative history. Pp. 635-636. (b) Where an immunity was well established at common law and where its rationale was compatible with the purposes of § 1983, the statute has been construed to incorporate that immunity. But there is no tradition of immunity for municipal corporations, and neither history nor policy supports a construction of § 1983 that would justify the qualified immunity accorded respondent city by the Court of Appeals. Pp. 637-644.

(c) The application and rationale underlying both the doctrine whereby a municipality was held immune from tort liability with respect to its "governmental" functions but not for its "proprietary" functions, and the doctrine whereby a municipality was immunized for its "discretionary" or "legislative" activities but not for those which were "ministerial" in nature, demonstrate that neither of these common-law doctrines could have been intended to limit a municipality's liability under § 1983. The principle of sovereign immunity from which a municipality's immunity for "governmental" functions derives cannot serve as the basis for the qualified privilege respondent city claims under § 1983, since sovereign immunity insulates a municipality from unconsented suits altogether, the presence or absence of good faith being irrelevant, and since the municipality's "governmental" immunity is abrogated by the sovereign's enactment of a statute such as § 1983 making it amenable to suit. And the doctrine granting a municipality immunity for "discretionary" functions, which doctrine merely prevented courts from substituting their own judgment on matters within the lawful discretion of the municipality, cannot serve as the foundation for a good-faith immunity under § 1983, since a municipality has no "discretion" to violate the Federal Constitution. Pp. 644-650.

(d) Rejection of a construction of § 1983 that would accord municipalities a qualified immunity for their good-faith constitutional violations is compelled both by the purpose of § 1983 to provide protection to those persons wronged by the abuse of governmental authority and to deter future constitutional violations, and by considerations of public policy. In view of the qualified immunity enjoyed by most government officials, many victims of municipal malfeasance would be left remediless if the city were also allowed to assert a good-faith defense. The concerns that justified decisions conferring qualified immunities on various government officials—the injustice, particularly in the absence of bad faith, of subjecting the official to liability, and the danger that the threat of such liability would deter the official's willingness to execute his office effectively—are less compelling, if not wholly inapplicable, when the liability of the municipal entity is at issue. Pp. 650-656.

589 F.2d 335, reversed.

Irving Achtenberg, Kansas City, Mo., for petitioner.

Richard G. Carlisle, Independence, Mo., for respondents.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), overruled Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961), insofar as Monroe held that local governments were not among the "persons" to whom 42 U.S.C. § 1983 applies and were therefore wholly immune from suit under the statute.1 Monell reserved decision, however, on the question whether local governments, although not entitled to an absolute immunity, should be afforded some form of official immunity in § 1983 suits. 436 U.S., at 701, 98 S.Ct., at 2041. In this action brought by petitioner in the District Court for the Western District of Missouri, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that respondent city of Independence, Mo., "is entitled to qualified immunity from liability" based on the good faith of its officials: "We extend the limited immunity the district court applied to the individual defendants to cover the City as well, because its officials acted in good faith and without malice." 589 F.2d 335, 337-338 (1978). We granted certiorari. 444 U.S. 822, 100 S.Ct. 42, 62 L.Ed.2d 28 (1979). We reverse.


The events giving rise to this suit are detailed in the District Court's findings of fact, 421 F.Supp. 1110 (1976). On February 20, 1967, Robert L. Broucek, then City Manager of respondent city of Independence, Mo., appointed petitioner George D. Owen to an indefinite term as Chief of Police.2 In 1972, Owen and a new City Manager, Lyle W. Alberg, engaged in a dispute over petitioner's administration of the Police Department's property room. In March of that year, a handgun, which the records of the Department's property room stated had been destroyed, turned up in Kansas City in the possession of a felon. This discovery prompted Alberg to initiate an investigation of the management of the property room. Although the probe was initially directed by petitioner, Alberg soon transferred responsibility for the investigation to the city's Department of Law, instructing the City Counselor to supervise its conduct and to inform him directly of its findings.

Sometime in early April 1972, Alberg received a written report on the investigation's progress, along with copies of confidential witness statements. Although the City Auditor found that the Police Department's records were insufficient to permit an adequate accounting of the goods contained in the property room, the City Counselor concluded that there was no evidence of any criminal acts or of any violation of state or municipal law in the administration of the property room. Alberg discussed the results of the investigation at an informal meeting with several City Council members and advised them that he would take action at an appropriate time to correct any problems in the administration of the Police Department.

On April 10, Alberg asked petitioner to resign as Chief of Police and to accept another position within the Department, citing dissatisfaction with the manner in which petitioner had managed the Department, particularly his inadequate supervision of the property room. Alberg warned that if petitioner refused to take another position in the Department his employment would be terminated, to which petitioner responded that he did not intend to resign.

On April 13, Alberg issued a public statement addressed to the Mayor and the City Council concerning the results of the investigation. After referring to "discrepancies" found in the administration, handling, and security of public property, the release concluded that "[t]here appears to be no evidence to substantiate any allegations of a criminal nature" and offered assurances that "[s]teps have been initiated on an administrative level to correct these discrepancies." Id., at 1115. Although Alberg apparently had decided by this time to replace petitioner as Police Chief, he took no formal action to that end and left for a brief vacation without informing the City Council of his decision.3

While Alberg was away on the weekend of April 15 and 16, two developments occurred. Petitioner, having consulted with counsel, sent Alberg a letter demanding written notice of the charges against him and a public hearing with a reason- able opportunity to respond to those charges.4 At approximately the same time, City...

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