Defending a Failure to Train Claim

Jan 10, 2018 | Featured, News

By: Andrew Firkins

To begin this analysis, we must first ask ourselves, can an individual actually bring forward a claim against a municipality for a failure to properly train its employees under 42 U.S.C. § 1983?  The Supreme Court of the United States and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals have found they can, but for the individual bringing such a claim to have any chance at success, they will need to show that the municipality was deliberately indifferent to their constitutional rights.  This is a tall task required of the plaintiff and should serve as an opportunity for the defense in defending their client against such claims.

The United States Supreme Court in the case of City of Canton v. Harris found “that inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for § 1983 liability only where the failure amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact.”  City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 389 (1989).

In order for a municipality to be held liable under § 1983, the policies of that municipality must be “the ‘moving force [behind] the constitutional violation.”  Id. at 388. (quoting Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 389 (1978) and citing Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 326 (1981)).  “Only where a failure to train reflects a ‘deliberate’ or ‘conscious’ choice by a municipality…can a city be liable for such a failure under § 1983.”  Id. at 389.  For a plaintiff to succeed against a municipality on a claim of failure to train, they will need to show that,

“(1) the training or supervision was inadequate for the tasks performed;
(2) the inadequacy was the result of the municipality’s deliberate indifference; and
(3) the inadequacy was closely related to or actually caused the injury.”  Ellis ex rel. Pendergrass v. Cleveland Mun. Sch. Dist., 455 F.3d 690, 700 (6th Cir. 2006) (citing Russo v. City of Cincinnati, 953 F.2d 1036, 1046 (6th Cir. 1992)); see also Plinton v. County of Summi, 540 F.3d 459, 464 (6th Cir. 2008).

The largest hurdle for the individual bringing a failure to train claim under § 1983 lies in the second prong of this test.  While the person bringing the claim against the municipality must not only show that the training program provided by the municipality was inadequate for the tasks performed by the employees and that the inadequacy of the training was closely related to or actually caused the injury, the party is also tasked with proving that the inadequacy of the employees’ training was the result of the municipality’s own deliberate indifference.

Deliberate indifference has been deemed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to be “a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.” Miller v. Calhoun County, 408 F.3d 803, 813-17 (6th Cir. 2005) (quoting Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U.S, 397, 410 (1997)); see also Harvey v. Campbell Cty., 453 F. App’x 557, 563 (6th Cir. 2011); Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 61 (2011); Zavatson v. City of Warren, et al., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 21859, *38 (6th Cir. Oct. 31, 2017).

The Court noted that “[m]ere allegations that an officer was improperly trained or that an injury could have been avoided with better training are insufficient to prove liability.”  Id. at 816.  (citing Sova v. City of Mt. Pleasant, 142 F.3d 898, 904 (6th Cir. 1998)). In an unpublished opinion recently released by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court noted that in order for a plaintiff to prove that a municipality acted with deliberate indifference, the plaintiff would need to show,

prior instances of unconstitutional conduct demonstrating that the [municipality] has ignored history of abuse and was clearly on notice that the training in this particular area was deficient and likely to cause injury.  Plinton v. Cty. of Summit, 540 F.3d 459, 464 (6th Cir. 2008) (quoting Fisher v. Harden, 398 F.3d 837, 849 (6th Cir. 2005)).

Alternatively, a plaintiff could establish deliberate indifference based on “a single violation of federal rights, accompanied by a showing that a municipality has failed to train its employees to handle recurring situations presenting an obvious potential for such a violation.”  Id. (quoting Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U.S, 397, 409 (1997)).

Zavatson v. City of Warren, et al., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 21859, *38 (6th Cir. Oct. 31, 2017).  The Court determined that “a municipality may be held liable without ‘a pattern of past misconduct’ only when the record shows a complete failure to train the police force, or training that is so reckless or grossly negligent that future police misconduct is almost inevitable or would properly be characterized as substantially certain to result.’”  Id. (quoting Hays v. Jefferson Cty., 668 F.2d 869, 874 (6th Cir. 1982)).

In another recent decision, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that “[i]n a deliberate-indifference case, the claimant must show not only that an employee’s actions caused a constitutional tort, but also that the city’s failure to train its employees caused the employee’s violation and that the city culpably declined to train its ‘employees to handle recurring situations presenting an obvious potential for such a violation.’”  Arrington-Bey v. City of Bedford Heights, 858F.3d 998, 995 (6th Cir. 2017).

So even if the plaintiff can demonstrate that a constitutional violation occurred as a result of the employee’s conduct, the claim against the municipality will only survive where the plaintiff can also show that the municipality had some hand in declining to train its employee to handle such recurring situations.  A constitutional violation by an employee, on its own, will not be enough.

There is no question that a person could certainly bring a lawsuit against a municipality for failure to train its employees, but what the defense needs to keep in mind is that the individual making such a claim will be required to meet the stringent standard necessary to prove deliberate indifference on the part of the municipality.  As noted by the courts, mere allegations of improper or insufficient training will not be enough.

Plaintiff will be required to show a clear history of abuse or a single violation that was accompanied by the municipality’s own failure to train its employees for such a situation, which in turn invited the potential for such a violation to occur.  The standard required to maintain a claim for failure to train against a municipality can offer the defense an opportunity to file dispositive motions.  The defense should make every effort to focus on claims made by the party bringing the suit which fall short of meeting the stringent standard required to prove a municipality was acting with deliberate indifference in training its employees.

Andrew Firkins is an experienced litigation attorney, based in the Knoxville office, with a strong background in insurance coverage and insurance defense, with a focus on environmental, constitution, product liability, and contract law.

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