Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Texas
Decided on Feb. 26, 1992; 503 US 115


A. Issues Discussed:  Civil Rights (Federal), 14th Amendment

 B. Legal Question Presented: 

Should a city that routinely does not train or warn its employees about known workplace hazards be liable under the Civil Rights Act and Fourteenth Amendment due process clause when a municipal employee is fatally injured in the course of his employment?

A. Background:

Larry Collins, an employee of the city's sanitation department, suffocated and died after entering a manhole to unstop a sewer line. His widow sued, alleging that the city violated his due process rights by adhering to a custom and policy of not training its employees about the dangers of working in manholes and sewer lines, not providing proper safety equipment, and not warning employees about safety issues. Further, she alleged that the city's conduct was especially grievous because a prior similar incident where her husband's supervisor had been rendered unconscious in a manhole had given the city notice of safety issues yet - despite that - it still failed to provide equipment and training in violation of a Texas state statute.

The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that a constitutional violation had not been alleged. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed on a different theory, namely that there had been no abuse of governmental power which would trigger a due process cause of action. The Court of Appeals based its holding on the abuse of government power standard, separate from the constitutional deprivation element or standard (whereas the district court had merged the two).

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Sanford J. Rosen argued the cause for petitioner.

With him on the briefs were Don Busby and Andrea G. Asaro.
Lucas A. Powe, Jr. argued the case for respondent.

With him on the brief were Roy L. Barrett and Stuart Smith.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
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.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the National League of Cities, et al., by Richard Ruda, Carter G. Phillips, and Mark D. Hopson.

"Proper analysis requires that two issues be separated 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...

Petitioner's constitutional claim rests entirely on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment... 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.' As a general matter, the Court has always been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process because guideposts for responsible decision making in this uncharted area are scarce and open-ended. 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 willful violation of Collins' rights... Instead, she makes the more general allegation that the city deprived him of life and liberty by failing to provide a reasonably safe work environment.

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... 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... The Due Process Clause 'is not a guarantee against incorrect or ill-advised personnel decisions.' 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 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. 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... The reasons why the city's alleged failure to train and warn did not constitute a constitutionally arbitrary deprivation of Collins' life... apply afortiori 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."

Held: The city's conduct does not violate the Due Process Clause. Affirmed.
Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 9 Con

  • Stevens, J. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the United States Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.