Walker v. City of New York

Decision Date04 September 1992
Docket NumberD,No. 1783,1783
Citation974 F.2d 293
PartiesJames WALKER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. The CITY OF NEW YORK, Defendant-Appellee. ocket 92-7365.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Douglas S. Liebhafsky, New York City (Claire D. Chappell, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, of counsel), for plaintiff-appellant.

A. Orli Spanier, New York City (O. Peter Sherwood, Corp. Counsel, Ellen B. Fishman, David Lock, New York City, of counsel), for defendant-appellee.

Before: NEWMAN, PRATT, and WALKER, Circuit Judges.

WALKER, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff James Walker spent nineteen years in prison for a crime that it now appears he did not commit. In 1971 police officers and prosecutors covered up exculpatory evidence and committed perjury in order to insure Walker's conviction despite their knowledge of Walker's probable innocence. After unearthing facts critically undermining the state's case against him, Walker won his release from prison in 1990. Walker then filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of New York in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking eleven million dollars. The district court dismissed the suit for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

The question presented to us on appeal is whether a plaintiff who alleges that he has been falsely imprisoned for nineteen years has a claim for relief under § 1983 against the city that hired but allegedly failed adequately to train and supervise the police officers and prosecutors who conspired against him. When stated this way, the question seems to admit of only one answer. However, beneath the obvious equities of this case lie complex and difficult questions of federal law.


On June 1, 1970, William Powell and at least one accomplice robbed an armored truck. Powell murdered the truck's driver, Edward Kargman, while an accomplice struck a guard, Jose Ruiz, with a sawed-off shotgun, knocking him unconscious. William Powell pled guilty to felony murder in October 1971.

The police were unable to identify, much less find, Powell's accomplice until several months after the incident, when John Snider, a drug addict with a substantial criminal record, identified James Walker as the man who assaulted Jose Ruiz. Snider also told the police that Melvin Givens, a friend of Walker, had participated in the crime. Snider was previously acquainted with Givens and knew Walker to be Givens' friend.

On April 23, 1971 Detective Robert Powell ("Detective Powell"), the police officer in charge of the investigation, arrested Walker. After the arrest, Walker took part in a police lineup. At the lineup, Jose Ruiz failed to pick out Walker and instead identified another man (apparently a police officer) as his assailant. The investigation suffered a second setback when Detective Powell and Kings County Assistant District Attorney ("ADA") J. Paul Zsuffa, the lead prosecutor on the case, learned that Melvin Givins had been in prison on June 1, 1970, the date of the heist. Thus, contrary to Snider's statement, Givins could not possibly have participated in the crime.

Undeterred, ADA Zsuffa and Detective Powell decided to continue efforts to prosecute Walker. In June 1971, Snider testified before a grand jury, implicated Walker, and made no mention of Givins. The grand jury indicted Walker.

Although the prosecution possessed documents revealing both Snider's prior false statements and Ruiz's failure to identify Walker, no such documents nor any record of either incident was ever turned over to the defense. Instead, in a pre-trial hearing pursuant to United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218, 87 S.Ct. 1926, 18 L.Ed.2d 1149 (1967), ADA Zsuffa appeared as a witness and denied that the April 23 lineup had taken place. At the same hearing, Detective Powell claimed that he could not recall the lineup. At trial, Snider testified against Walker without mentioning Givins, and Detective Powell testified to the consistency between Snider's statements after the incident and at trial, despite the glaring discrepancy between them.

On October 19, 1971 a jury convicted Walker of murder. In April 1972, the court sentenced Walker to a term of twenty years to life imprisonment. Years later, Walker learned of the exculpatory evidence concealed in this case. On January 2, 1990 Walker moved in state court for an order vacating his conviction. With the consent of the Kings County District Attorney's office, the court entered an order dismissing the indictment, with prejudice, and vacating the conviction.

After winning his release, Walker sued New York City ("the City") under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the City had failed adequately to train and supervise the police and the district attorney's office. Specifically, Walker asserted that the City should have trained police officers and ADAs not to commit or suborn perjury and not to suppress exculpatory evidence. Walker asserted that the City's failure to train constituted deliberate indifference to his constitutional rights and proximately caused his wrongful imprisonment.

On the City's motion, the district court dismissed Walker's complaint. The district court reasoned that failure to train and supervise City employees can only constitute deliberate indifference by the City where it should be obvious to City policymakers that training and supervision is required. The district court concluded that there was no obvious need to train prosecutors and police officers not to commit or suborn perjury, since that should be clear to all without training. Similarly, the district court found that the prosecutor's duty to turn over exculpatory material to the defense was sufficiently obvious as not to require training. Finally, the district court concluded that whether or not it was obvious that police officers should turn over exculpatory evidence, any failure to train in this regard did not proximately cause Walker's injuries, since the police did turn over the exculpatory evidence to the prosecution and only the prosecutor had a duty to turn the evidence over to the defense. Accordingly, the district court dismissed Walker's complaint. This appeal followed.


This appeal requires us to address a basic question of section 1983 litigation: when are municipalities liable for the unconstitutional acts of municipal employees? Until 1978, the answer to that question was simple--never. See Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 187, 81 S.Ct. 473, 484, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961). In Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), the Supreme Court overruled Monroe and declared that Congress had not intended to exempt municipalities from liability in all cases. The Monell court also concluded that Congress had not intended to expose municipalities to respondeat superior liability for all misdeeds by municipal employees. Rather, it is only when the municipality itself commits the misdeed, that is, "when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983." Monell, 436 U.S. at 694, 98 S.Ct. at 2037.

Monell raised several elusive questions. What is a government policy or custom? Who is a policymaker? Can a single incident constitute an unlawful policy? In developing answers to these questions, the Supreme Court has been mindful of maintaining a delicate balance between insuring that municipalities are liable for their own misdeeds and avoiding respondeat superior liability. See St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 131, 108 S.Ct. 915, 928, 99 L.Ed.2d 107 (1988) (opinion of O'Connor, J.); Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 477, 106 S.Ct. 1292, 1297, 89 L.Ed.2d 452 (1986); Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 830, 105 S.Ct. 2427, 2439, 85 L.Ed.2d 791 (1985) (opinion of Brennan, J.).

In Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 105 S.Ct. 2427, 85 L.Ed.2d 791 (1985), the Court considered whether evidence of a single incident of use of excessive force by the police could, without more, establish a municipal policy of failing to properly train and supervise police officers. The Court concluded that to allow evidence of a single incident to establish inadequate training, without any proof relating to the nature of the training itself, would "unduly threaten [a municipality's] immunity from respondeat superior liability." Id. at 830, 105 S.Ct. at 2440 (opinion of Brennan, J.). Instead, to establish inadequate training, plaintiffs must put forward some evidence that the City itself has acted or consciously not acted. Id. at 832, 105 S.Ct. at 2440 (opinion of Brennan, J.).

In Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 106 S.Ct. 1292, 89 L.Ed.2d 452 (1986), the Court clarified that Tuttle should not be taken to mean that a single act could never be the basis of municipal liability. So long as the single challenged act was the decision of a municipal policymaker, the municipality could be held liable. Id. at 480, 106 S.Ct. at 1298. The Pembaur court fractured, however, on the precise definition of a policymaker for § 1983 purposes. A plurality of the Court suggested that a policymaker was one who, under state law, "possesses final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the action ordered." Id. at 481, 106 S.Ct. at 1299 (opinion of Brennan, J.) Two concurring justices questioned whether this definition was too broad. See id. at 486, 106 S.Ct. at 1301 (White, J., concurring); id. at 491, 106 S.Ct. at 1304 (O'Connor, J., concurring).

The Court revisited the policymaker question in St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 108 S.Ct. 915, 99 L.Ed.2d 107 (1988). There, the Court affirmed that state law provides a proper source for assessing who possesses final authority to establish municipal policy. Id. at 124, 108 S.Ct. at 924 ("the...

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