Oklahoma City v. Tuttle
Decided on June 3, 1985; 471 US 808


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed:  Civil Rights (federal) 

B. Legal Question Presented: 

Should a single isolated incident of the use of excessive force by a police officer establish an official policy or practice of a municipality sufficient to render the municipality liable for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

Rose Marie Tuttle (Respondent) sued Oklahoma City officials because a police officer had shot and killed her husband outside a bar.  The case was presented to the jury on theory that the officer's act deprived Tuttle of life without due process of law, and alleged negligence on the part of Oklahoma City officials in training their officers in the use of firearms.  A verdict was returned against Oklahoma City (Petitioner).  The city appealed, arguing error had occurred in instructing the jury that the city could be held liable for a “policy” of “inadequate training” based merely upon evidence of a single incident of unconstitutional activity. The Court of Appeals held that proof of a single incident of unconstitutional activity by a police officer could suffice to establish municipal liability.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Carl Hughes argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were J. LeVonne Chambers and Eric Schnapper.
Burck Bailey argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Burt Neuborne and Charles S. Sims filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, et al., as amici curiae urging affirmance. Michael C. Turpen, Attorney General, and David W. Lee, Assistant Attorney General, filed a brief for the State of Oklahoma as amicus curiae urging reversal.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

“Only deprivations visited pursuant to municipal ‘custom’ or ‘policy’ [can] lead to municipal liability. Respondent, however, did not claim in the District Court that Oklahoma City had a ‘custom’ or ‘policy’ of authorizing its police force to use excessive force in the apprehension of suspected criminals, and the jury was not instructed on that theory of municipal liability. Rather, respondent's theory of liability was that the ‘policy’ in question was the city's policy of training and supervising police officers, and that this ‘policy’ resulted in inadequate training, and the constitutional violations alleged.

Here the [jury] instructions allowed the jury to infer a thoroughly nebulous ‘policy’ of ‘inadequate training’ on the part of the municipal corporation from the single incident... and at the same time sanctioned the inference that the ‘policy’ was the cause of the incident... Proof of a single incident of unconstitutional activity is not sufficient to impose liability... unless proof of the incident includes proof that it was caused by an existing, unconstitutional municipal policy, which policy can be attributed to a municipal policymaker... Under the charge upheld by the Court of Appeals the jury could properly have imposed liability on the city based solely upon proof that it employed a non-policymaking officer who violated the Constitution.  The decision of the Court of Appeals is accordingly reversed.”
Justice Vote: 1 Pro vs. 7 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote the majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Con (Joined Brennan’s concurring opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined Brennan’s concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Powell, L.  (took no part in the decision process of the case)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the United States Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals ruling in a 7-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.