Section 1983 Litigation/Causation
By its terms, § 1983 authorizes the imposition of liability only on a defendant who “subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen … or other person … to the deprivation of any rights” guaranteed by federal law. The Supreme Court has read this language as imposing a proximate cause requirement on § 1983 claims. The great weight of judicial authority equates § 1983’s causation requirement with common-law proximate cause. This reading of § 1983 is consistent with the fundamental principle that § 1983 should be interpreted “against the background of tort liability that makes a [person] responsible for the natural consequences of his [or her] actions.”
A § 1983 defendant “may be held liable for ‘those consequences attributable to reasonably foreseeable intervening forces, including acts of third parties.’” The requisite causal connection is satisfied if the defendant “set in motion a series of events” he knew or reasonably should have known would cause third parties to violate the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. On the other hand, a § 1983 defendant may not be held liable when an intervening force was not reasonably foreseeable or when the link between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injuries is too remote, tenuous, or speculative. “In the context of criminal law enforcement, courts have differed as to the circumstances under which acts of subsequent participants in the legal system are superseding causes that avoid liability of an initial actor.” Causation in § 1983 actions is usually a question of fact for the jury.
The proximate cause requirement applies to all § 1983 claims, whether against a subordinate or supervisory officer or governmental entity. In Los Angeles County v. Humphries, the Supreme Court said the causation required under § 1983 for municipal liability claims does not “change with the form of relief sought.” The Court relied upon § 1983’s language that a person “shall be liable . . . in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.”
Very often multiple officials are involved in governmental decision-making, and the actions of more than one of them may be a proximate cause of the contested governmental decision. In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, a case under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination against members of the military, the Supreme Court held that under common law proximate cause principles, “if a supervisor performs an act motivated by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action [by the decision maker], then the employer is liable under” the Federal Act.
The Court in Staub stated that when Congress creates a federal tort it adopts “the background of general tort law,” including “the traditional tortlaw concept of proximate cause.” With respect to the specific causation issue before the Court, the Court said:
[I]t is axiomatic under tort law that the exercise of judgment by the decisionmaker does not prevent the earlier agent’s action (and hence the earlier agent’s discriminatory animus) from being the proximate cause of the harm. Proximate cause requires only “some direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged,” and excludes only those “link[s] that are too remote, purely contingent or indirect.” [T]he ultimate decisionmaker’s exercise of judgment [does not] automatically render [ ] the link to the supervisor’s bias “remote” or “purely contingent.” The decisionmaker’s exercise of judgment is also a proximate cause of the employment decision, but it is common for injuries to have multiple proximate causes. Nor can the ultimate decisionmaker’s judgment be deemed a superseding cause of the harm. A cause can be thought “superseding” only if it is a “cause of independent origin that was not foreseeable.”
The Court ruled that the employer may be liable even though the ultimate decision maker exercised independent judgment, and even if the ultimate decision maker conducted an independent investigation (and rejection) of the employee’s allegations of a supervisor’s discriminatory animus.
[I]f the employer’s investigation results in an adverse action for reasons unrelated to the supervisor’s original biased action . . . , then the employer will not be liable. But the supervisor’s biased report may remain a causal factor if the independent investigation takes it into account without determining that the adverse action was, apart from the supervisor’s recommendation, entirely justified. . . . [A]n employer’s mere conduct of an independent investigation . . . [does not] relieve[ ] the employer of “fault.” The employer is at fault because one of its agents committed an action based on discriminatory animus that was intended to cause, and did in fact cause, an adverse employment decision. . . .
Since a supervisor is an agent of the employer, when he causes an adverse employment action the employer causes it; and when discrimination is a motivating factor in his doing so, it is a “motivating factor in the employer’s action … .”
In the author’s view, because § 1983 is interpreted against the background of common law tort principles including proximate cause, Staub very likely applies to § 1983 actions in which multiple officials participate in the contested governmental action.
In an important decision, the First Circuit, in Drumgold v. Callahan, recently held that § 1983 causation principles must be consistent with the principles governing the plaintiff’s constitutional claim. The plaintiff in Drumgold asserted a § 1983 Brady v. Maryland  claim, based upon failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, against the defendant, a homicide detective. The jury returned a verdict for the wrongfully convicted plaintiff of $14 million, but the First Circuit reversed because of a causation instruction that clashed with the Brady materiality prong requirement of a reasonable probability that if the exculpatory material had been disclosed, the result would have been different. The First Circuit stressed that in § 1983 actions, district courts must apply “only those tort causation principles that are compatible with the underlying constitutional right.” The district court’s instruction that there may be concurrent causes for the plaintiff’s injury was incompatible with the Brady materiality requirement of a reasonable probability that he would not have been convicted but for the defendant’s withholding of exculpatory evidence. It is not sufficient that the suppression of evidence was merely one cause of the wrongful conviction. The First Circuit held that the district court should have instructed the jury that the plaintiff was required to demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he would not have been convicted but for the defendant’s suppression of the exculpatory evidence.
Causation frequently plays a significant role in § 1983 municipal liability claims based on allegedly inadequate training, supervision, or hiring practices. For these municipal liability claims, Supreme Court decisional law states that the municipal policy or practice must be the “moving force” for, “closely related” to, a “direct causal link” to, or “affirmatively linked” to the deprivation of the plaintiff’s federally protected rights. It is unclear whether these standards are alternative ways of articulating common-law proximate cause or are intended to impose a more stringent causation requirement.
References[edit | edit source]
- Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277, 284–85 (1980).
- Sanchez v. Pereira-Castillo, 590 F.3d 31, 50 (1st Cir. 2009); Cyrus v. Town of Mukwonago, 624 F.3d 856, 864 (7th Cir. 2010); Murray v. Earle, 405 F.3d 278, 290 (5th Cir. 2005); McKinley v. City of Mansfield, 404 F.3d 418, 438 (6th Cir. 2005). See also Whitlock v. Brueggemann, 682 F.3d 567 (7th Cir. 2012). On § 1983 claims, the court stated, “Causation is a standard element of tort liability, and includes two requirements: (1) the act must be the ‘cause-in-fact’ of the injury, i.e., ‘the injury would not have occurred absent the conduct”; and (2) the act must be the ‘proximate cause,’ … i.e., ‘the injury is of a type that a reasonable person would see as a likely result of his or her conduct.’” Id. at 582 (citation omitted). See also Evans v. Chalmers, 703 F.3d 636 (4th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 98 (2013).
- Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 187 (1961). Accord Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 344 n.7 (1986).
- Warner v. Orange Cnty. Dep’t of Prob., 115 F.3d 1068, 1071 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Gutierrez-Rodriguez v. Cartagena, 882 F.2d 553, 561 (1st Cir. 1989)). “Where multiple ‘forces are actively operating,’ . . . plaintiffs may demonstrate that each defendant is a concurrent cause by showing that his or her conduct was a ‘substantial factor in bringing [the injury] about.’ In a case of concurrent causation, the burden of proof shifts to the defendants in that ‘a tortfeasor who cannot prove the extent to which the harm resulted from other concurrent causes is liable for the whole harm’ because multiple tortfeasors are jointly and severally liable.” Lippoldt v. Cole, 468 F.3d 1204, 1219 (10th Cir. 2006) (quoting Northington v. Marin, 102 F.3d 1564, 1568–69 (10th Cir. 1996)).
- Martinez v. Carson, 697 F.3d 1252, 1255 (10th Cir. 2012).
- See, e.g., Martinez, 444 U.S. at 284–85; Wray v. City of N.Y., 490 F.3d 189, 193 (2d Cir. 2007); Murray, 405 F.3d at 291; Townes v. City of N.Y., 176 F.3d 138, 146–47 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 964 (1999). See also Chalmers, 703 F.3d at 647.
- Zahrey v. Coffey, 221 F.3d 342, 351 (2d Cir. 2000).
- See, e.g., Young v. City of Providence, 404 F.3d 4, 23 (1st Cir. 2005) (questions of causation “are generally best left to the jury”) (citing Wortley v. Camplin, 333 F.3d 284, 295 (1st Cir. 2003)); Rivas v. City of Passaic, 365 F.3d 181, 193 (3d Cir. 2004). See also Schneider v. City of Grand Junction Police Dep’t, 717 F.3d 760, 778–79 (10th Cir. 2013) (although causation generally question of fact for jury, whether plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of causation to defeat summary judgment is legal question).
- 131 S. Ct. 447 (2010).
- Id. at 452.
- Id. On the issues of municipal liability and causation, see infra Chapter 11, § I.D.
- 131 S. Ct. 1186 (2011).
- Id. at 1194. The Court adopted the so-called “cat’s paw” theory, named after the fable in which “a monkey induces a cat by flattery to extract roasting chestnuts from the fire. After the cat has done so, burning its paws in the process, the monkey makes off with the chestnuts and leaves the cat with nothing.” Id. at 1190 n.1.
- Id. at 1191, 1193.
- Id. at 1192.
- Id. at 1192–93.
- Id. at 1193. The decision in Staub was limited to discriminatory acts by supervisors, leaving open “whether the employer would be liable if a co-worker, rather than a supervisor, committed an employment decision.” Id. at 1194. The Supreme Court remanded to the Seventh Circuit to determine whether variance between the jury instructions and the Court’s decision necessitated a new trial, or was harmless error. Id.
- See Smith v. Bray, 681 F.3d 888, 898–99 (7th Cir. 2012) (dicta) (proctor’s cat’s paw theory applies in § 1983 actions).
- 707 F.3d 28 (1st Cir. 2013).
- 373 U.S. 83 (1963).
- Drumgold, 707 F.3d at 54 (citation omitted).
- Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 402–04 (1997); City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385–86 (1989).
- Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, 520 U.S. at 402–04; City of Canton, 489 U.S. at 385–86.
- The Court has stressed that for municipal liability claims based on inadequate training or deficient hiring, the fault and causation standards are stringent. See infra Chapter 11. Some courts, however, have equated phrases like “moving force” with proximate cause. See infra note 872.