Cecelia Roberts Webb; Darron Yates; Robert Eutz; Anthony Lemicy; Krystal Banks; Frank Williams, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated. Plaintiffs - Appellees
City of Maplewood Defendant-Appellant
Submitted: April 12, 2018
from United States District Court for the Eastern District of
Missouri - St. Louis
COLLOTON, ARNOLD, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.
ARNOLD, Circuit Judge.
Webb and five other motorists have filed a putative class
action against the City of Maplewood, Missouri, under 42
U.S.C. § 1983, claiming its policy or custom violates
their constitutional rights. They assert the City
automatically issues an arrest warrant whenever someone
ticketed for violating its traffic and vehicle laws fails to
pay a fine or appear in court. Once arrested, the motorist is
allegedly presented with a Hobson's choice: Either pay a
bond the amount of which was set in advance without any
determination of his ability to pay it, or sit in jail
possibly for days. The plaintiffs further contend that once a
warrant has been issued, a motorist cannot avoid it by
voluntarily returning to the municipal court or paying the
outstanding fine, but must either submit to a custodial
arrest or retain a lawyer to argue a motion before the
municipal judge to vacate the warrant. If the court does not
grant the motion, the motorist, whose presence in court the
judge allegedly demands, will be arrested and jailed. Jail,
the plaintiffs assert, is the means by which the City
attempts to coerce the motorist into paying the bond to
secure his release. The complaint indicates that the
City's policy or custom involves additional steps that
can ensnare motorists in repeated cycles of arrest, jailing,
and pressure to pay a bond irrespective of their ability to
do so. The plaintiffs maintain that since their poverty makes
it difficult if not impossible to pay the bond, the City
thereby violates, among other things, their due-process and
City moved the district court to dismiss the complaint on
several grounds, including that the City is immune from suit
and that the complaint fails to state a claim against the
City. The district court dismissed a single count from the
complaint on the consent of both parties but otherwise denied
the motion, ruling that the City is not immune from suit and
that the complaint sufficiently states a claim of municipal
liability. The City appeals from the order denying it
immunity, and we affirm.
review a district court's decision about whether a party
is immune from suit de novo. See Sample v. City of
Woodbury, 836 F.3d 913, 915-16 (8th Cir. 2016);
Balogh v. Lombardi, 816 F.3d 536, 544 (8th Cir.
2016). The City argues that it enjoys immunity for two
reasons: first, under the Eleventh Amendment since the
municipal court, which is an arm of the State of Missouri, is
responsible for most of the disputed practices and is thus
the real party in interest here; and second, because the
absolute immunity of the responsible officials renders the
City immune as well. The City is wrong in both respects.
Eleventh Amendment protects States and their arms and
instrumentalities from suit in federal court, N. Ins. Co.
v. Chatham Cty., 547 U.S. 189, 193 (2006), and the State
of Missouri has not waived its sovereign immunity for the
type of claim the plaintiffs have raised. See Mo.
Rev. Stat. § 537.600.1; see also Williams v.
State, 973 F.2d 599, 600 (8th Cir. 1992) (per curiam).
But "municipalities, unlike States, do not enjoy a
constitutionally protected immunity from suit."
Jinks v. Richland Cty., 538 U.S. 456, 466 (2003). So
the district court correctly held that the City is liable for
its constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
See Leatherman v. Tarrant Cty. Narcotics Intelligence
& Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 166 (1993).
City nonetheless insists that it enjoys Eleventh Amendment
immunity since "the real party in interest" is the
municipal court, "an arm of the state entitled to
sovereign immunity." But we use the
real-party-in-interest test only to determine whether suits
against a State's "arm or instrumentality" or
"employees in their official capacity" are "in
essence against [the] State." See Lewis v.
Clarke, 137 S.Ct. 1285, 1291-92 (2017). As the City
conceded at oral argument, it cannot identify a single case
that has used the test to find that a municipality itself had
immunity. We believe the reason is clear: The Supreme Court
"has consistently refused to construe the Amendment to
afford protection to political subdivisions such as counties
and municipalities, even though such entities exercise a
'slice of state power.'" See Lake Country
Estates, Inc. v. Tahoe Reg'l Planning Agency, 440
U.S. 391, 401 (1979).
event, in arguing for sovereign immunity, the City does not
contend that it enacted or maintains the contested practices
as an arm of the State, but that virtually all of the
practices revolve around the municipal court, a separate and
distinct entity over which it disclaims any control, and it
is the court that is the arm of the State. But if the
municipal court rather than the City is responsible for the
practices, the City will have a defense on the merits but not
immunity from suit. Cf. Leatherman, 507 U.S. at 166.
Even if the court were entitled to immunity-an issue we do
not opine on-that immunity would not shield the City from its
separate liability if any.
City argues that it is also immune from suit since all of the
individuals the complaint identifies as participating in the
contested practices are personally immune from suit.
"[I]f individual officials are immune from liability on
the acts that allegedly constitute a municipality's
policy or custom, " the City asserts, "there are no
unlawful acts which may form an unlawful policy or custom in
the first place, precluding municipal liability." But
even if we accepted the City's premise that its officials
all enjoy personal immunity from suit, it hardly follows that
they did not engage in any unlawful acts or that the City is
thereby immune as well. Whether the challenged acts occurred,
whether they were unlawful, and whether the City is liable
for them under Monell v. Department of Social
Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), would still be open
questions. See Owen v. City of Independence, 445
U.S. 622, 657 (1980); see also Sample, 836 F.3d at
917. We have long held for that reason that a municipality
may be held liable for its unconstitutional policy or custom
even when no official has been found personally liable for
his conduct under the policy or custom. See Praprotnik v.
City of St. Louis, 798 F.2d 1168, 1172 n.3 (8th Cir.
1986), rev'd on other grounds, 485 U.S. 112
(1988); see also Speer v. City of Wynne, 276 F.3d
980, 985-86 (8th Cir. 2002); Parrish v. Luckie, 963
F.2d 201, 207 (8th Cir. 1992). The district court did not err
in denying the City immunity on this ground, either.
not always been as clear as we could have in discussing the
relationship between individual and municipal liability. As
the City notes, we have stated in the past that it is "a
general rule" that "for municipal liability to
attach, individual liability first must be found on an
underlying substantive claim." See McCoy v. City of
Monticello, 411 F.3d 920, 922 (8th Cir. 2005). But in
McCoy we used that language to explain why a city
could not be held liable "on either an unconstitutional
policy or custom theory or on a failure to train or supervise
theory" once it has been determined that the underlying
official conduct was "objectively reasonable" and
thus did not violate the plaintiff's rights. See
id. In McCoy we cited six cases that allegedly
applied the "general rule"; in five of them we
simply held that because the challenged official conduct was
not unconstitutional, the municipality had nothing to be
liable for. See McVay v. Sisters of Mercy Health
Sys., 399 F.3d 904, 909 (8th Cir. 2005); Turpin v.
Cty. of Rock, 262 F.3d 779, 783-84 (8th Cir. 2001);
Veneklase v. City of Fargo, 248 F.3d 738, 749 (8th
Cir. 2001) (en banc); Thomas v. Dickel, 213 F.3d
1023, 1026 (8th Cir. 2000); Eagle v. Morgan, 88 F.3d
620, 628 (8th Cir. 1996). In the sixth case, we reversed a
district court's ruling that official conduct was
unconstitutional as a matter of law and remanded the case for
a new trial. Since there no longer was a finding that the
conduct was unlawful, we also reversed the district
court's ruling that the city was liable for it. See
Abbott v. City of Crocker, 30 F.3d 994, 998-99 (8th Cir.
City contends we gave full effect to the "general
rule" in McCoy when we stated in Patterson
v. Von Riesen, 999 F.2d 1235 (8th Cir. 1993), that in
order to hold a municipality liable for its unconstitutional
policy, a plaintiff "must be able to attach liability to
the decision in question, " which, we further stated,
could not happen if the municipal policymakers had
"absolute" immunity from suit. See id. at
1238 n.2. We acknowledged that the Supreme Court had
established that a city could still be held liable under
Monell where "the individual municipal
officials were all immune, " see Pembaur v. City of
Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 475 (1986), but we
distinguished that case on the ground that the policymaker in
Pembaur did not engage "in a function protected
by absolute immunity, " while those in
Patterson did. See 999 F.2d at 1238 n.2. We
did not explain why that distinction made a difference, and
it did not make one to the Supreme Court: The policymaker in
Pembaur was the County Prosecutor, and the plaintiff
did not sue him having determined he was "absolutely
immune" from suit-an evaluation the Court expressed
"no view" on. See Pembaur, 475 U.S. at 474
n.2, 485. The distinction in any event was flawed. As the
Supreme Court commented in Bogan v. Scott-Harris,
523 U.S. 44 (1998), although a municipality's legislators
are all absolutely immune from suit for their legislative
activities, the victims of their "legislative
abuse" are not without recourse since under
Monell the municipality itself can still "be
held liable for constitutional violations." See
id. at 53. So it is now clear that the absolute immunity
of its policymakers does not shield a city from liability for
its policies. See McDonough v. Anoka Cty., 799 F.3d
931, 941-42 (8th Cir. 2015). We have indicated, moreover,
that our statements in Patterson on absolute
immunity and Monell liability were dicta: Since the
plaintiff had "claimed only that [the county] was liable
because of its 'authorization and ratification . . . of
the acts of its agents, '" see Patterson,
999 F.2d at 1238 n.2., we "relied on a respondeat
superior theory to find the county not liable."
See Sample, 836 F.3d at 917 n.3. Our musings on
whether the county could have been held liable under
Monell instead were thus not binding.
despite our occasional use of overbroad language, our case
law has been clear since Praprotnik that although
"there must be an unconstitutional act by a municipal
employee" before a municipality can be held liable,
see Russell v. Hennepin Cty., 420 F.3d 841, 846 (8th
Cir. 2005), there "need not be a finding that a
municipal employee is liable in his or her individual
capacity." See Moyle v. Anderson, 571 F.3d 814,
818 (8th Cir. 2009). The City's contrary rule conflicts
not only with our longstanding precedent, see Mader v.
United States, 654 F.3d 794, 800 (8th Cir. 2011) (en
banc), but with one of the Supreme Court's reasons for
denying municipalities immunity under § 1983: The need
to provide "victims of ...