CITY OF ST. LOUIS V. PRAPROTNIK, 485 U. S. 112 (1988)

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U.S. Supreme Court

City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112 (1988)

City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik

No. 86-772

Argued October 7, 1987

Decided March 2, 1988

485 U.S. 112


Two years after respondent, a management-level employee in one of petitioner city's agencies, successfully appealed a temporary suspension to petitioner's Civil Service Commission (Commission), he was transferred to a clerical position in another city agency, from which he was laid off the next year. In respondent's suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the jury found petitioner liable on the theory that respondent's First Amendment rights had been violated through retaliatory actions taken in response to his suspension appeal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment entered on this verdict, finding that the jury had implicitly determined that respondent's layoff was brought about by an unconstitutional city policy. Applying a test under which a "policymaker" is one whose employment decisions are "final" in the sense that they are not subjected to de novo review by higher ranking officials, the court concluded that petitioner could be held liable for adverse personnel decisions made by respondent's supervisors.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

798 F.2d 1168, reversed and remanded.


1. Petitioner's failure to timely object under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 51 to a jury instruction on municipalities' § 1983 liability for their employees' unconstitutional acts does not deprive this Court of jurisdiction to determine the proper legal standard for imposing such liability. The same legal issue was raised by petitioner's motions for summary judgment and a directed verdict, was considered and decided by the Court of Appeals, and is likely to recur in § 1983 litigation against municipalities. Review in this Court will not undermine the policy of judicial efficiency that underlies Rule 51. Pp. 485 U. S. 118-121.

2. The Court of Appeals applied an incorrect legal standard for determining when isolated decisions by municipal officials or employees may expose the municipality to § 1983 liability. The identification of officials having "final policymaking authority" is a question of state (including local) law, rather than a question of fact for the jury. Here, it appears that petitioner's City Charter gives the authority to set employment policy to the Mayor and Aldermen, who are empowered to enact ordinances, chanrobles.com-red

Page 485 U. S. 113

and to the Commission, whose function is to hear employees' appeals. Petitioner cannot be held liable unless respondent proved the existence of an unconstitutional policy promulgated by officials having such authority. The Mayor and Aldermen did not enact an ordinance permitting retaliatory transfers or layoffs. Nor has the Commission indicated that such actions were permissible; it has, on the contrary, granted respondent at least partial relief in a series of appeals from adverse personnel decisions. The Court of Appeals' findings that the decisions of respondent's supervisors were not individually reviewed for "substantive propriety" by higher supervisory officials, and were accorded substantial deference by the Commission on appeal, are insufficient to support the conclusion that the supervisors had been delegated the authority to establish transfer and layoff policy. When a subordinate's discretionary decisions are constrained or subjected to review by authorized policymakers, they, and not the subordinate, have final policymaking authority. Positing a delegation based on their mere acquiescence in, or failure to investigate the basis of, the subordinate's decisions does not serve § 1983's purposes where (as here) the wrongfulness of those decisions arises from a retaliatory motive or other unstated rationale. Pp. 485 U. S. 122-131.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE BLACKMUN, agreed that respondent's supervisor at his first agency did not possess delegated authority to establish final employment policy such that petitioner could be held liable under § 1983 for the allegedly unlawful decision to transfer respondent to a dead-end job, but concluded that, in any case in which the policymaking authority of a municipal tortfeasor is in doubt, although state law will naturally be the appropriate starting point, ultimately the factfinder must determine where such policymaking authority actually resides, and not simply where the applicable state law purports to put it. JUSTICE BRENNAN also concluded that the "custom or usage" doctrine cannot compensate for the inherent inflexibility of an approach that relies exclusively on state law, for that doctrine simply does not apply to isolated unconstitutional acts by subordinates having de facto, but not statutory, final policymaking authority; that a subordinate's decisions are not rendered nonfinal simply because they are subject to some form of review, however limited; and that the question is open whether a municipality can be subjected to liability for a policy that, while not unconstitutional in and of itself, may give rise to constitutional deprivations. Pp. 485 U. S. 132-147.

O'CONNOR, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and WHITE and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined U.S. 485 U. S. 132. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting chanrobles.com-red

Page 485 U. S. 114

opinion, post, p. 485 U. S. 147. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


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