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COLLINS v. HARKER HEIGHTS, 503 U.S. 115 (1992)

U.S. Supreme Court

COLLINS v. HARKER HEIGHTS, 503 U.S. 115 (1992)

503 U.S. 115

MYRA JO COLLINS, PETITIONER v. CITY OF HARKER HEIGHTS, TEXAS
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

No. 90-1279

Argued November 5, 1991
Decided February 26, 1992

Larry Collins, an employee in respondent city's sanitation department, died of asphyxia after entering a manhole to unstop a sewer line. Petitioner, his widow, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging, inter alia, that Collins had a right under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "to be free from unreasonable risks of harm . . . and . . . to be protected from the [city's] custom and policy of deliberate indifference toward [its employees'] safety;" that the city had violated that right by following a custom and policy of not training its employees about the dangers of working in sewers and not providing safety equipment and warnings; and that the city had systematically and intentionally failed to provide the equipment and training required by a Texas statute. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that it did not allege a constitutional violation. Without reaching the question whether the city had violated Collins' constitutional rights, the Court of Appeals affirmed on the theory that there had been no "abuse of governmental power," which the court found to be a necessary element of a 1983 action.

Held:

Because a city's customary failure to train or warn its employees about known hazards in the workplace does not violate the Due Process Clause, 1983 does not provide a remedy for a municipal employee who is fatally injured in the course of his employment as a result of the city's failure. Pp. 119-130.

916 F.2d 284 (CA5 1990), affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Sanford Jay Rosen argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Don Busby and Andrea G. Asaro. [503 U.S. 115, 117]  

Lucas A. Powe, Jr., argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Roy L. Barrett and Stuart Smith. *  

[ Footnote * ] Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Edward Tuddenham, J. Patrick Wiseman, Steven R. Shapiro, John A. Powell, and Helen Hershkoff; for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America by Jeffrey L. Needle; and for the National Education Association by Robert H. Chanin and Jeremiah A. Collins.

Richard Ruda, Carter G. Phillips, and Mark D. Hopson filed a brief for the National League of Cities et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance.

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. 1983, provides a remedy for a municipal employee who is fatally injured in the course of his employment because the city customarily failed to train or warn its employees about known hazards in the workplace. Even though the city's conduct may be actionable under state law, we hold that 1983 does not apply, because such conduct does not violate the Due Process Clause.

On October 21, 1988, Larry Michael Collins, an employee in the sanitation department of the city of Harker Heights, Texas, died of asphyxia after entering a manhole to unstop a sewer line. Petitioner, his widow, brought this action alleging that Collins "had a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable risks of harm to his body, mind and emotions and a constitutional right to be protected from the city of Harker Heights' custom and policy of deliberate indifference toward the safety of its employees." App. 7. Her complaint alleged that the city violated that right by following a custom and policy of not training its employees about the dangers of working in sewer lines and manholes, not providing safety equipment at job sites, and not providing safety warnings. The complaint also alleged that a prior incident [503 U.S. 115, 118]   had given the city notice of the risks of entering the sewer lines, 1 and that the city had systematically and intentionally failed to provide the equipment and training required by a Texas statute. Ibid. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that a constitutional violation had not been alleged. No. W-89-CA-168 (W.D.Tex., Oct. 30, 1988), App. 20. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed on a different theory. 916 F.2d 284 (CA5 1990). It did not reach the question whether the city had violated Collins' constitutional rights, because it denied recovery on the ground that there had been no "abuse of governmental power," which the Fifth Circuit had found to be a necessary element of a 1983 action. 2 Id., at 287-288, and n. 3. [503 U.S. 115, 119]  

The contrary decision in Ruge v. City of Bellevue, 892 F.2d 738 (CA8 1989), together with our concern about the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the statute, prompted our grant of certiorari, 499 U.S. 958 (1991).

I

Our cases do not support the Court of Appeals' reading of 1983 as requiring proof of an abuse of governmental power separate and apart from the proof of a constitutional violation. Although the statute provides the citizen with an effective remedy against those abuses of state power that violate federal law, it does not provide a remedy for abuses that do not violate federal law, see, e.g., Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277 (1980); DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989). More importantly, the statute does not draw any distinction between abusive and nonabusive federal violations.

The Court of Appeals' analysis rests largely on the fact that the city had, through allegedly tortious conduct, harmed one of its employees, rather than an ordinary citizen over whom it exercised governmental power. The employment relationship, however, is not of controlling significance. On the one hand, if the city had pursued a policy of equally deliberate indifference to the safety of pedestrians that resulted in a fatal injury to one who inadvertently stepped into an open manhole, the Court of Appeals' holding would not speak to this situation at all, although it would seem that a claim by such a pedestrian should be analyzed in a similar manner as the claim by this petitioner. On the other hand, a logical application of the holding might also bar potentially meritorious claims by employees if, for example, the city had given an employee a particularly dangerous assignment in retaliation for a political speech, cf. St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112 (1988), or because of his or her gender, cf. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The First Amendment, the Equal Protection and [503 U.S. 115, 120]   Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and other provisions of the Federal Constitution afford protection to employees who serve the government as well as to those who are served by them, and 1983 provides a cause of action for all citizens injured by an abridgement of those protections. Neither the fact that petitioner's decedent was a government employee nor the characterization of the city's deliberate indifference to his safety as something other than an "abuse of governmental power" is a sufficient reason for refusing to entertain petitioner's federal claim under 1983.

Nevertheless, proper analysis requires us to separate two different issues when a 1983 claim is asserted against a municipality: (1) whether plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation, and (2) if so, whether the city is responsible for that violation. See Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 817 (1985) (opinion of REHNQUIST, J.); id., at 828-829 (opinion of Brennan, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). Because most of our opinions discussing municipal policy have involved the latter issue, it is appropriate to discuss it before considering the question whether petitioner's complaint has alleged a constitutional violation.

II

Section 1983 provides a remedy against "any person" who, under color of state law, deprives another of rights protected by the Constitution. 3 In Monell, the Court held that Congress intended municipalities and other local government entities to be included among those persons to whom 1983 applies. 436 U.S., at 690 . At the same time, the Court [503 U.S. 115, 121]   made it clear that municipalities may not be held liable "unless action pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature caused a constitutional tort." Id., at 691. 4 The Court emphasized that

In a series of later cases, the Court has considered whether an alleged injury caused by municipal employees acting under color of state law provided a proper basis for imposing liability on a city. In each of those cases, the Court assumed that a constitutional violation had been adequately alleged or proved, and focused its attention on the separate issue of municipal liability. Thus, for example, in Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, supra, it was assumed that the police officer had violated the decedent's constitutional rights, but we held that the wrongful conduct of a single officer without any policymaking authority did not establish municipal policy. And in St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112 (1988), without reaching [503 U.S. 115, 122]   the question whether the adverse employment action taken against the plaintiff violated his First Amendment rights, the Court concluded that decisions by subordinate employees did not necessarily reflect official policy. On the other hand, in Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469 (1986), the Court held that the County was responsible for unconstitutional actions taken pursuant to decisions made by the County Prosecutor and the County Sheriff because they were the "officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question," id., at 483-484.

Our purpose in citing these cases is to emphasize the separate character of the inquiry into the question of municipal responsibility and the question whether a constitutional violation occurred. It was necessary to analyze whether execution of a municipal policy inflicted the injury in these cases because, unlike ordinary tort litigation, the doctrine of respondeat superior was inapplicable. The city is not vicariously liable under 1983 for the constitutional torts of its agents: it is only liable when it can be fairly said that the city itself is the wrongdoer. Because petitioner in this case relies so heavily on our reasoning in Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989) - and in doing so, seems to assume that the case dealt with the constitutional issue - it is appropriate to comment specifically on that case.

In Canton, we held that a municipality can, in some circumstances, be held liable under 1983 "for constitutional violations resulting from its failure to train municipal employees." Id., at 380. Among the claims advanced by the plaintiff in that case was a violation of the "right, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, to receive necessary medical attention while in police custody." Id., at 381. 5 Because we assumed arguendo that the plaintiff's [503 U.S. 115, 123]   constitutional right to receive medical care had been denied, id., at 388-389, n. 8, our opinion addressed only the question whether the constitutional deprivation was attributable to a municipal policy or custom.

We began our analysis by plainly indicating that we were not deciding the constitutional issue.

We did not suggest that all harm-causing municipal policies are actionable under 1983 or that all such policies are unconstitutional. Moreover, we rejected the city's argument that only unconstitutional policies can create municipal liability under the statute. Id. at 387. Instead, we concluded that, if a city employee violates another's constitutional rights, the city may be liable if it had a policy or custom of failing to train its employees, and that failure to train caused the constitutional violation. In particular, we held that the inadequate training of police officers could be characterized as the cause of the constitutional tort if - and only if - the [503 U.S. 115, 124]   failure to train amounted to "deliberate indifference" to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact. Id., at 388. 6  

Although the term "deliberate indifference" has been used in other contexts to define the threshold for finding a violation of the Eighth Amendment, see Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976), as we have explained, that term was used in the Canton case for the quite different purpose of identifying the threshold for holding a city responsible for the constitutional torts committed by its inadequately trained agents. 7 In this case, petitioner has used that term to characterize the city's failure to train the employees in its sanitation department. We assume for the purpose of decision that the allegations in the complaint are sufficient to provide a substitute for the doctrine of respondeat superior as a basis for imposing liability on the city for the tortious conduct of its agents, but that assumption does not confront the question whether the complaint has alleged a constitutional violation. To that question we now turn. [503 U.S. 115, 125]  

III

Petitioner's constitutional claim rests entirely on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 8 The most familiar office of that Clause is to provide a guarantee of fair procedure in connection with any deprivation of life, liberty, or property by a State. Petitioner, however, does not advance a procedural due process claim in this case. Instead, she relies on the substantive component of the Clause that protects individual liberty against "certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them." Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 331 (1986).

As a general matter, the Court has always been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process, because guideposts for responsible decisionmaking in this unchartered area are scarce and open-ended. Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214, 225 -226 (1985). The doctrine of judicial self-restraint requires us to exercise the utmost care whenever we are asked to break new ground in this field. It is important, therefore, to focus on the allegations in the complaint to determine how petitioner describes the constitutional right at stake and what the city allegedly did to deprive her husband of that right.

A fair reading of petitioner's complaint does not charge the city with a wilful violation of Collins' rights. Petitioner does not claim that the city or any of its agents deliberately harmed her husband. In fact, she does not even allege that his supervisor instructed him to go into the sewer when the supervisor knew or should have known that there was a significant risk that he would be injured. Instead, she makes the more general allegation that the city deprived him of [503 U.S. 115, 126]   life and liberty by failing to provide a reasonably safe work environment. 9 Fairly analyzed, her claim advances two theories: that the Federal Constitution imposes a duty on the city to provide its employees with minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace, or that the city's "deliberate indifference" to Collins' safety was arbitrary government action that must "shock the conscience" of federal judges. Cf. Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 172 (1952).

Neither the text nor the history of the Due Process Clause supports petitioner's claim that the governmental employer's duty to provide its employees with a safe working environment is a substantive component of the Due Process Clause. "[T]he Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to prevent government "`from abusing [its] power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression.'" DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S., at 196 (quoting Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 348 (1986)). As we recognized in DeShaney,

Petitioner's submission that the city violated a federal constitutional obligation to provide its employees with certain minimal levels of safety and security is unprecedented. It is quite different from the constitutional claim advanced by plaintiffs in several of our prior cases who argued that the State owes a duty to take care of those who have already been deprived of their liberty. We have held, for example, that, apart from the protection against cruel and unusual punishment provided by the Eighth Amendment, cf. Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978), the Due Process Clause of its own force requires that conditions of confinement satisfy certain minimal standards for pretrial detainees, see Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535 , n. 16, 545 (1979), for persons in mental institutions, Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 315 -316 (1982), for convicted felons, Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 94 -99 (1987), and for persons under arrest, see Revere v. Massachusetts General Hospital, 463 U.S. 239, 244 -245 (1983). The "process" that the Constitution guarantees in [503 U.S. 115, 128]   connection with any deprivation of liberty thus includes a continuing obligation to satisfy certain minimal custodial standards. See DeShaney, 489 U.S., at 200 . Petitioner cannot maintain, however, that the city deprived Collins of his liberty when it made, and he voluntarily accepted, an offer of employment.

We also are not persuaded that the city's alleged failure to train its employees, or to warn them about known risks of harm, was an omission that can properly be characterized as arbitrary, or conscience-shocking, in a constitutional sense. Petitioner's claim is analogous to a fairly typical state law tort claim: the city breached its duty of care to her husband by failing to provide a safe work environment. Because the Due Process Clause "does not purport to supplant traditional tort law in laying down rules of conduct to regulate liability for injuries that attend living together in society," Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S., at 332 , we have previously rejected claims that the Due Process Clause should be interpreted to impose federal duties that are analogous to those traditionally imposed by state tort law, see, e.g., id., at 332-333; Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 146 (1979); Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 701 (1976). The reasoning in those cases applies with special force to claims asserted against public employers, because state law, rather than the Federal Constitution, generally governs the substance of the employment relationship. See, e.g., Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 350 (1976); Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577 -578 (1972).

Our refusal to characterize the city's alleged omission in this case as arbitrary in a constitutional sense rests on the presumption that the administration of Government programs is based on a rational decisionmaking process that takes account of competing social, political, and economic forces. Cf. Walker v. Rowe, 791 F.2d 507, 510 (CA7 1986). Decisions concerning the allocation of resources to individual programs, such as sewer maintenance, and to particular aspects [503 U.S. 115, 129]   of those programs, such as the training and compensation of employees, involve a host of policy choices that must be made by locally elected representatives, rather than by federal judges interpreting the basic charter of Government for the entire country. The Due Process Clause "is not a guarantee against incorrect or ill-advised personnel decisions." Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S., at 350 . Nor does it guarantee municipal employees a workplace that is free of unreasonable risks of harm.

Finally, we reject petitioner's suggestion that the Texas Hazard Communication Act 11 supports her substantive due process claim. We assume that the Act imposed a duty on the city to warn its sanitation employees about the dangers of noxious gases in the sewers and to provide safety training and protective equipment to minimize those dangers. 12 We also assume, as petitioner argues, that the Act created an entitlement that qualifies as a "liberty interest" protected by the Due Process Clause. But even with these assumptions, petitioner's claim must fail, for she has not alleged that the deprivation of this liberty interest was arbitrary in the constitutional sense. Cf. Harrah Independent School Dist. v. [503 U.S. 115, 130]   Martin, 440 U.S. 194, 198 -199 (1979). The reasons why the city's alleged failure to train and warn did not constitute a constitutionally arbitrary deprivation of Collins' life, see supra, at 128-129, apply a fortiori to the less significant liberty interest created by the Texas statute.

In sum, we conclude that the Due Process Clause does not impose an independent federal obligation upon municipalities to provide certain minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace and the city's alleged failure to train or to warn its sanitation department employees was not arbitrary in a constitutional sense. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore affirmed.

Footnotes

[ Footnote 1 ] In particular, the complaint alleged that, ""[p]rior to October, 1988, the City of Harker Heights was on notice of the dangers to which the employees were exposed because Larry Michael Collins' supervisor had been rendered unconscious in a manhole several months prior to October, 1988, in fact, several months before Larry Michael Collins began work at the City of Harker Heights." App. 7.

[ Footnote 2 ] The Court of Appeals explained:

[ Footnote 3 ] The section states, in relevant part:

[ Footnote 4 ] Petitioners in Monell, a class of female employees of the New York City Department of Social Services and Board of Education, alleged that the Board and Department violated their due process rights by implementing an official policy that compelled pregnant employees to take unpaid leaves of absences before such leaves were required for medical reasons. 436 U.S., at 660 -661.

[ Footnote 5 ] "At the close of the evidence, the District Court submitted the case to the jury, which rejected all of Mrs. Harris' claims except one: her 1983 claim against the city resulting from its failure to provide her with medical [503 U.S. 115, 123]   treatment while in custody." Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S., at 382 (emphasis added).

[ Footnote 6 ] We added:

[ Footnote 7 ] Indeed, we expressly stated: "The `deliberate indifference' standard we adopt for 1983 `failure to train' claims does not turn upon the degree of fault (if any) that a plaintiff must show to make out an underlying claim of a constitutional violation." Id., at 388, n. 8.

[ Footnote 8 ] The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment states: "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

[ Footnote 9 ] Petitioner alleges that her husband had "a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable risks of harm to his body, mind and emotions and a constitutional right to be protected from the City of Harker Heights' custom and policy of deliberate indifference toward the safety of its employees." App. 7. The city's policy and custom of not training its employees and not warning them of the danger allegedly caused Collins' death, and thus deprived him of those rights. Id., at 8.

[ Footnote 10 ] "Historically, this guarantee oe of due process has been applied to deliberate decisions of government officials to deprive a person of life, liberty, or property. E.g., Davidson v. New Orleans, 96 U.S. 97 (1878) (assessment of real estate); Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165 (1952) (stomach pumping); Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535 (1971) (suspension of driver's license); Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977) (paddling student); Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517 (1984) (intentional destruction of inmate's property). No decision of this Court before Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527 (1981), supported the view that negligent conduct by a state official, even though causing injury, constitutes a deprivation under the Due Process Clause. This history reflects the traditional and common-sense notion that the Due Process Clause, like its forebear in the Magna Carta, see Corwin, The Doctrine of Due Process of Law Before the Civil War, 24 Harv.L.Rev. 366, 368 (1911), was "intended to secure the individual from the arbitrary exercise of the powers of government," Hurtado v. California, 110 U.S. 516, 527 (1884). Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 331 (1986).

[ Footnote 11 ] Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann., Art. 5182b (Vernon 1987).

[ Footnote 12 ] Section 10(a) of the Act states, for example:

And 15(a) states:

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