The California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, Cal.Penal Code Ann. §11164 et seq. (West Rev. Supp. 2010), required law enforcement and other state agencies to investigate allegations of child abuse. These agencies must report to the California Department of Justice all instances of reported child abuse the agency finds not unfounded, even if they are inconclusive or unsubstantiated. The statute required the department to include all the reports in a Child Abuse Central Index (Index), where they remain available to various state agencies for at least 10 years.
- 11170(a). It also state that if a report had previously been filed which subsequently proves to be unfounded, the Department of Justice shall be notified in writing of that fact and shall not retain the report. The statute, however, did not set forth procedures for reviewing whether a previously filed report is unfounded, or for allowing individuals to challenge their inclusion in the Index.
The two plaintiffs in the case were initially accused of child abuse, but later exonerated. They sought to have their names removed from the Index. Unable to convince the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to remove them, they filed the §1983 case against the AG of California, the Los Angeles County sheriff, detectives in the sheriff’s department, and the County of Los Angeles. They sought damages, an injunction, and a declaration that the defendants had deprived them of their constitutional rights by failing to create a procedural mechanism through which one could contest inclusion on the Index. The District Court for the Central District of California granted summary judgment to all of the defendants on the ground that California had not deprived plaintiffs of a constitutionally protected “liberty” interest. On appeal the Ninth Circuit disagreed.
The Ninth Circuit held that the Fourteenth Amendment required the State to provide those included on the list notice and some kind of hearing. 554 F. 3d 1170, 1201 (2009). Thus the Circuit held that the plaintiffs were entitled to declaratory relief. The Ninth Circuit also held that the plaintiffs were prevailing parties, thereby entitled to approximately$600,000 in attorney’s fees.
Los Angeles County denied that it was liable, arguing that, in respect to the county, the plaintiffs were not prevailing parties as the county was a municipal entity and under Monell’s holding a municipal entity was liable under §1983 only if a municipal “policy or custom” caused a plaintiff to be deprived of a federal right. And in this case it was only state policy, not county policy, that brought about any deprivation. But the Ninth Circuit rejected it holding that Monell’s policy or custom requirement did not apply to claims for prospective relief, such as the declaratory judgment as in the present case.
The issue before the Supreme Court was to review the Ninth Circuit’s holding that Monell’s “policy or custom” requirement applied only to claims for damages but not to claims for prospective relief.
- 1983 state: “Every person who, under color of any state statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any . . . other person . . . to the deprivation of any rights . . . secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.”
The Supreme Court stated that in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U. S. 658 it had held that a municipality could not be held liable under §1983 solely because it employed a tortfeasor. Section 1983’s causation language impose liability on a “‘person who . . . shall subject, or cause to be subjected, any person’” to a deprivation of federal rights. That language, the Court observed, could not be easily read to impose liability vicariously solely on the basis of the existence of an employer-employee relationship with a tortfeasor. The statute’s legislative history, in particular the constitutional objections that had been raised to the Sherman amendment, supported it. Thus the Supreme Court in Monell held that a municipality could be held liable under §1983 only for its own violations of federal law and it cannot be held liable solely for the acts of others, e.g., solely because it employs a tortfeasor.
In the present case it held that the language of §1983 read in light of Monell’s understanding of the legislative history explained why claims for prospective relief, like claims for money damages, too fall within the scope of the “policy or custom” requirement. Nothing in the text of §1983 suggest that the causation requirement contained in the statute should change with the form of relief sought. The Monell Court thought that Congress intended potential §1983 liability where a municipality’s own violations were at issue but not where only the violations of others were at issue. The “policy or custom” requirement rest upon that distinction and embody it in law. To find the requirement inapplicable where prospective relief is at issue would undermine Monell’s logic. Thus the Court concluded that Monell’s “policy or custom” requirement apply in §1983 cases irrespective of whether the relief sought is monetary or prospective. The Ninth Circuit’s judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.