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High Court Broadens Protection Against Municipal Liability

In a decision with potential implications for school districts, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday strengthened protections against municipal liability in federal civil rights lawsuits.

The justices ruled 8-0 in Los Angeles County v. Humphries (Case No. 09-350) that a 1978 high court decision about municipal liability for civil rights violations applies even when a plaintiff is seeking only an injunction or a declaratory judgment, in contrast to monetary damages.

The decision comes in the case of a California teacher and her husband who were wrongfully accused of child abuse and then found that once they were exonerated, they had no way to remove their names from a state child-abuse registry. They sued Los Angeles County and its sheriff, as well as the state, alleging a violation of their 14th Amendment right to due process of law.

Central to their case is the older Supreme Court decision, Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, which held that cities, counties, and school districts could only be liable when a civil rights plaintiff could show that a violation stemmed from a muncipal policy or custom, as opposed to the government agency simply being the employer of someone who violated the plaintiff's rights.

The Monell case involved monetary damages, and the issue in the case decided on Tuesday was whether the policy or custom requirement also extended to when plaintiffs sought only prospective relief, such as an injunction or other court order.

Writing for every member of the court except for Justice Elena Kagan, who was recused, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that the Monell requirement did apply to the broader category of civil rights cases.

The Supreme Court that decided Monell "thought that Congress intended potential [civil-rights] liability where a municipality's own violations were at issue but not where only the violations of others were at issue," Justice Breyer said. "The 'policy or custom' requirement rests upon that distinction and embodies it in law. To find the requirement inapplicable where prospective relief is at issue would undermine Monell's logic."

The case decided Tuesday stems from what a lower court called a "parents' nightmare," in which Craig and Wendy Humphries found that there was no procedure for removing their names from the state child-abuse index, despite a court declaration that they were "factually innocent" of the abuse charges.

Among the difficulties the couple faced in suing, court papers said, was that Ms. Humphries' inclusion on the child-abuse index threatened her ability to remain licensed as a special education teacher.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, held last year that the county sheriff's department was potentially liable under the Monell decision for not adopting its own procedure for the falsely accused to remove their names from the child-abuse index.

Los Angeles County appealed the 9th Circuit ruling as to its municipal liability, and Tuesday's Supreme Court's decision is a victory for the county.

The high court's ruling appears to leave undisturbed part of the 9th Circuit's decision that required the state of California to develop a procedure for notifying people who were being added to the state child-abuse registry and to provide some form of hearing for those who seek to challenge their inclusion on it.

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