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S.M. v. Lincoln County

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

October 27, 2017

S.M. et al. Plaintiffs - Appellees
Lincoln County, Missouri Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: June 7, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before LOKEN, MURPHY, and MELLOY, Circuit Judges.

          LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiffs S.M., L.M., K.W., and K.S. are former participants in the Adult Drug Court of Missouri's 45th Judicial Circuit ("Drug Court"), an alternative court established to dispose of drug cases pursuant to Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 478.001-.006. Plaintiffs brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 damage action against Lincoln County and other defendants, asserting that Scott Edwards, then a lieutenant in the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department, violated their substantive due process rights by committing repeated acts of sexual abuse while serving in his position as the "tracker" (monitor) of Drug Court participants.

         In a prior appeal, we reversed the denial of qualified immunity to individual defendant Michael Krigbaum, who served as Sheriff of Lincoln County at the time of Edwards's criminal misconduct.[1] S.M. v. Krigbaum, 808 F.3d 335 (8th Cir. 2015). On remand, the claims against Lincoln County proceeded to a three-day trial. The jury found that the Lincoln County Sheriff, a County policy maker, was deliberately indifferent to plaintiffs' constitutional rights in failing to supervise tracker Edwards. The jury awarded compensatory damages of $750, 000 to S.M. and $500, 000 each to K.W., K.S., and L.M. The district court[2] denied Lincoln County's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or in the alternative for a new trial. Lincoln County appeals the denial of its post-verdict motion.[3] Applying the deferential standards for review of a jury verdict and the denial of a motion for new trial, we affirm.


         It is undisputed that Edwards "deprived plaintiffs of a clearly established constitutional right to substantive due process when he committed an egregious, nonconsensual entry into the body which was an exercise of power without any legitimate governmental objective." Krigbaum, 808 F.3d at 340 (quotation omitted). Edwards's tracker duties included curfew checks at participants' homes at 10 p.m.; searches of their homes, refrigerators, and trash for evidence of drug use or other Drug Court program noncompliance; conducting on-site urine analysis tests; reporting information about participants' compliance at Drug Court team meetings; and taking participants who violated program requirements into custody. The Drug Court circuit judge issued sanctions and punishments, including jail time, for program noncompliance.

         Some of Edwards's sexual assaults occurred while plaintiffs were incarcerated as a Drug Court sanction in a Sheriff's Department jail. Assaults also occurred when Edwards visited the plaintiffs' homes in the evenings for curfew checks, or while conducting strip searches, or while transporting participants in his patrol car. On several occasions, Edwards required plaintiffs to remove their bras and expose their breasts to "shake out" evidence of drug use. On another occasion, Edwards fondled and abused a participant while feigning to look for evidence of drug use. Edwards assaulted S.M. after moving her to a motel room. Plaintiffs did not report the assaults because they believed Edwards held power over them at the Drug Court. He would cover up a victim's Drug Court violations, so she felt "he had something solid on me that he could use against me to actively do whatever it was he was going to do." After learning that L.M. had relapsed, Edwards told her she could "earn it back" (avoid sanction) through sexual favors.

         At issue is Lincoln County's liability for these egregious violations. The jury found that Lincoln County was deliberately indifferent to an obvious risk that the County's failure to supervise Edwards would result in these violations of plaintiffs' rights. Lincoln County argues that plaintiffs presented legally insufficient evidence to support this finding, which is a prerequisite to imposing § 1983 municipal liability. We must uphold the verdict unless it has no legally sufficient evidentiary basis. Jackson v. City of St. Louis, 220 F.3d 894, 896 (8th Cir. 2000).

         A. A municipality (or County) "may not be found liable unless action pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature caused a constitutional tort." Szabla v. City of Brooklyn Park, MN., 486 F.3d 385, 389 (8th Cir. 2007) (en banc), quoting Monell v. Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978). It "cannot be held liable on a respondeat superior theory, that is, solely because it employs a tortfeasor" such as Edwards. Id. Where municipal action "itself violates federal law, or directs an employee to do so, resolving [] issues of fault and causation is straightforward." Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404-05 (1997). But where the claim is that municipal action lawful on its face caused an employee to inflict constitutional injury, "rigorous standards of culpability and causation must be applied to ensure that the municipality is not held liable solely for the actions of its employee." Id. at 405. In City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989), the Court held that municipal liability for a claim such as failure to supervise employee Edwards -- plaintiffs' theory in this case -- requires proof that the failure "amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [employee] come[s] into contact." Municipal inaction must be the "moving force [behind] the constitutional violation." Id. at 389 (alteration in original) (quotation omitted); see Szabla, 486 F.3d at 390-91.

         Deliberate indifference in this context "is a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action." Brown, 520 U.S. at 410. The issue is whether, "in light of the duties assigned to specific officers or employees the need for more or different training [or supervision] is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need." Canton, 489 U.S. at 390, quoted in Liebe v. Norton, 157 F.3d 574, 579 (8th Cir. 1998); cf. Cash v. Cty. of Erie, 654 F.3d 324, 337 (2d Cir. 2011) (failure-to-supervise claim), cert. denied, 565 U.S. 1259 (2012). "A pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is ordinarily necessary to demonstrate deliberate indifference for purposes of failure to train." Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 62 (2011) (quotation omitted). "In resolving the issue of a city's liability, the focus must be on adequacy of the [supervision] in relation to the tasks the particular officers must perform." Canton, 489 U.S. at 390.

         "When the issue is qualified immunity from individual liability for failure to train or supervise, deliberate indifference is a subjective standard" that requires personal knowledge of the constitutional risk posed by inadequate supervision, the basis for our conclusion that Sheriff Krigbaum was entitled to qualified immunity in Krigbaum, 808 F.3d at 341. But an objective standard of deliberate indifference applies to plaintiffs' failure-to-supervise claims against the County. Id. at n.3; see Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 840-42 (1994); Canton, 489 U.S. at 390.

         B. A unique aspect in applying these established municipal-liability principles to this case is the central role played by the multi-agency Drug Court. Though generally authorized by state statute, the Drug Court was established by a lengthy August 2006 Memorandum of Understanding ("MOU") between the Forty-Fifth Circuit Court, "the local Defense Bar, The Sheriffs of Lincoln and Pike Counties, Department of Corrections District Office of Probation and Parole, and designated substance abuse treatment providers." Sheriff Krigbaum's predecessor signed the MOU as Lincoln County Sheriff, thereby undertaking to be a "team member" and "to enhance interagency communication to provide an effective treatment team for the Drug Court participants" through this "linkage of ...

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