“Policy or custom” requirement for 1983 cases against municipalities applies no matter what type of relief is sought

A recent U.S. Supreme Court case offers more protection for municipalities when implementing certain state policies.  In Los Angeles County v. Humphries, the plaintiffs sued the County and the State of California under Section 1983 claiming their federal due process rights were violated. The case arose after the plaintiffs were placed on the state of California’s Child Abuse Central Index pursuant to state law.  When the allegations were determined to be unfounded, the plaintiffs were not able to remove their names because the state law did not provide any avenue to challenge inclusion on the Index.

The main issue in the case on appeal was whether Los Angeles County, in implementing the state law, was liable for depriving the plaintiffs of federal due process rights.  The Supreme Court held the County was not liable because a municipality is liable only if its “policy or custom” caused the deprivation of a plaintiff’s federal right regardless of whether the relief sought was monetary or prospective (i.e. declaratory or injunctive).  Here the policy or custom was promulgated by the State, not the County.

While it had been well settled that municipalities were only liable when its own “policy or custom” was at issue when monetary damages were sought, there had been a split among the Federal Court of Appeals on whether this was also the case for prospective relief claims.