Defending a Municipality from Section 1983 Lawsuits

How these civil rights claims proceed in Ohio

Municipalities operate a tight budget. As they face a number of different liability risks, they must be prepared to protect the financial interests of the community at large. If a local employee or local agency—such as a police officer or a police department—is accused of violating an individual’s civil rights, the municipality could face a federal civil lawsuit under Section 1983.

“It can be an employment case; it can be a law enforcement case; it can be a children’s services case; now we’re defending a lot of local health districts in COVID cases; it can be almost anything that involves the conduct of a public employee,” says Todd M. Raskin, a Cleveland attorney at Mazanec, Raskin & Ryder who has defended such claims for more than 30 years.

Below, you will find an overview of Section 1983 lawsuits and an explanation of how municipalities can defend these types of civil claims.

Understanding the Basics

Passed as a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S. Code § 1983—or, as it is more commonly referred to, “Section 1983”—is the main legal tool that individuals have to hold local governments and local government agencies legally liable for a civil rights violation. “It doesn't create any substantive rights for anybody,” Raskin explains. “It's a federal statute which provides a vehicle for people who claim that their constitutional rights have been violated.”

As such, Section 1983 claims cover a wide swath, including:

  • First Amendment claims, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association—"cases where municipalities restrict time and days when people can solicit homeowners,” Raskin says. Plus, there are employment claims such as whistleblower retaliation.
  • Fourth Amendment claims, which are “typically brought against law enforcement because of a wrongful detention, wrongful prosecution, right to counsel, or excessive force,” Raskin adds.
  • Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment due process claims, “depending upon whether or not a person is a pretrial detainee—in other words, accused of a crime, but not convicted—and those can relate to incarceration,” he says. Property owners can also assert a due process claims, arguing a municipality isn’t granting a zoning request to use their property as they wish.  
  • Eighth Amendment claims for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.

“There are all kinds of these claims, and that's just a very broad overview,” Raskin explains.

In order to bring a winning Section 1983 civil rights claim, a plaintiff must prove the following two key elements:

  1. They were deprived of federally guaranteed civil rights, privileges, or immunities; and
  2. The violation occurred under the “color of law” on the part of the municipal defendant.

Taking Steps to Defend Yourself

Section 1983 suits are federal claims that, in the case of Ohio, are brought before the Sixth Circuit. “Many times, the first inkling a public entity has about the potential for a lawsuit is through a public records request,” Raskin says. “So we recommend to the public entities that that's when they should get counsel involved.”

Another early step Raskin asks of clients is to preserve electronically stored information (ESI).

“That becomes particularly important when you're dealing with custody cases or cases involving law enforcement interaction with the public. While many communities have both body cam and dashcam, because of storage issues, especially in smaller communities, that information is recycled periodically,” he says. “In the Sixth Circuit, the statute of limitations on these cases is two years. So, oftentimes, if the municipality isn't aware of the potential of a claim, electronically stored information will be recycled and lost forever. So it's very important that any potential claim be identified as early as possible and all of that electronically stored information be retained.”

Personnel and training records are another important item. Though many of the claims listed above are made against individuals, some claims can also be made against the municipality itself, and those are typically referred to as Monell claims. This is because of an important legal precedent, the 1978 Supreme Court case Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York.

“The court recognized that there could be claims directly against the municipality for failure to train or failure to supervise if those failures were the moving force behind the constitutional violation,” Raskin says.

“So, if the municipality or the law enforcement department failed to properly train its officers in when to initiate pursuit, how to supervise a pursuit, and when to stop or cut off a pursuit, there could be potential liability, not only on the part of the officers and their supervisors, but also on the part of the municipality,” he adds. “So we want to see the training files and the discipline files because we need to know whether or not we're dealing with people who have repeatedly been engaged in conduct, which is the subject of litigation.”

How these civil rights lawsuits should be defended depends entirely on the unique allegations being raised by the plaintiff. It is important to emphasize that plaintiffs must base any claim for broader municipal liability on its implementation of unlawful policy or custom. Plaintiffs must prove:

  1. A policy/custom was enacted or pursued with the required degree of culpability; and
  2. A causal link between the denial of federal rights and the municipal policy.

If you have any specific questions or concerns about defending a Section 1983 claim, an experienced Ohio state, local, and municipal attorney can help. For more information on state, local, and municipal law, see our overview.

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