Last week, Union County, New Jersey reached a $3.2 million settlement with the plaintiff in a wrongful conviction case (sometimes called a reversed conviction) based on the fabrication of polygraph evidence by a Union County Police Department detective. This is one of the highest settlements in New Jersey history for this sort of claim. The average per year amount of this settlement is also very high, at about a million dollars per year. In the world of wrongful conviction litigation (of which I have been, and continue to be, a part), lawyers often look at the dollar amount per year when valuing and negotiating these types of cases. That is, perhaps, a good subject for another blog post.
The case was originally dismissed, but the plaintiff, Emmanuel Mervilus, appealed to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which reviews decisions from federal courts in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands. (Mervilus v. Union Cnty., 73 F.4th 185 (3d Cir. 2023). One of the more interesting parts of the decision is the Court's conclusion that the County employing a detective could liable for a civil rights violation even though the detective who fabricated evidence might beat the case.
In federal civil rights law, a statute called Section 1983 allows people to sue the government and its employees for violating their civil rights. If you are suing the government, you have to sue the right government body, which depends on what you are claiming and how the government is structured. So for example, a police officer and the municipality they work for can be sued for a Fourth Amendment violation, but not the police department itself. In New York City for example, individual NYPD officers can be sued, the City of New York can be sued, but the NYPD itself cannot be named in a lawsuit because of how it is a part of the City.
In terms of lawsuits against individual government employees, the law requires each employee to have been personally involved in the alleged civil rights violation. Usually, the plaintiff has to show that the employee did an intentional act that violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights while acting "under the color of law." On the other hand, when it comes to government bodies, meaning entities as opposed to people, the rules are different. The government is not liable under Section 1983 just because it employs a wrongdoer. These rules were created by the United States Supreme Court in a case called Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Under Monell, a government entity is only liable if it has an unconstitutional policy, practice, or custom that was "the moving force" behind the civil rights violation. In other words, the plaintiff has to show that their constitutional rights were violated and the policy, practice, or custom caused that violation. Many Monell claims accuse the government body of failing to train or supervise their employees on a particular issue.
The Third Circuit comment in Mervilus, that the County could be liable even if the individual employee is not, is a point often overlooked even by lawyers who practice civil rights, but has larger implications for lawyers and citizens alike. Sometimes certain government employees can't be sued because of an immunity. For example, individual prosecutors that handle a criminal case cannot sued under the doctrine of absolute immunity for the actions in prosecuting a case. At least in the Second Circuit (which includes federal courts in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont), it is possible to bring a Monell claim against a prosecutor's office for a constitutional violation, if the plaintiff can show the office had a policy or practice that caused a violation in the plaintiff's criminal case. Another example are situations where the plaintiff's claim is really about the training given to employees rather than individual employees behaving badly. For example, I was involved in a case where only the City of New York was sued for false arrest (that is, arresting people without probable cause), based on a claim that the City incorrectly trained police officers about enforcing New York State's Disorderly Conduct statutes during protests. No individual officers were sued. (The Court found that the policy and practice was constitutional. Monahan v. City of New York, No. 20-CV-2610 (PKC), 2022 WL 954463 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2022), reconsideration denied, No. 20-CV-2610 (PKC), 2023 WL 2138535 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2023)).
On the other hand, bringing or defending against a Monell claim is both challenging and costly. First, it requires a deep understanding of the relevant law, along with how the government body actually operates. Second, for both sides it is a time consuming and expensive endeavor. There are often thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of pages of documents. There can be numerous depositions, often involving high level government officials, who will be questioned about their decisions which may carry political consequences. Experts are often hired to analyze all the evidence, write a report, and testify. Finally, depending on the claim, both sides may face a lengthy trial if it gets to that point.