I was in court once and an attorney was trying to convince the judge that he had a great case. The judge kept interrupting the lawyer, telling him, "Monell, Monell, Monell." Non-lawyers would not know what the judge meant, but any lawyer in the room would understand what the court was trying to convey: the lawyer was suing the wrong entity.
Monell is shorthand for a legal principle under the federal civil rights laws, particularly what we call Section 1983, which is the law that allows us to bring suit for a civil rights violation. Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), was the Supreme Court ruling that outlined when you can sue a municipality under that law. Generally, you can't sue a municipality, such as town, village, county or school district, for something that a government employee did. In other words, there is no respondeat superior in Section 1983 litigation. There are ways around this, but it's not easy. That was the lesson in Reynolds v. DeBuono, decided by the Court of Appeals on October 31, 2007.
In Reynolds, the plaintiff alleged that the State and City of New York were not properly enforcing the new welfare rules enacted in 1996. The district court agreed, finding that welfare recipients were being denied benefits improperly. The State and City were found liable for this, but only the State, and not the City, appealed. The question was whether the State was liable for the City's derelictions. In a lengthy opinion that provides a good primer on the scope of Monell liability, the Court of Appeals said no, primarily for two reasons.
First, and this is a highly technical issue, the Court joined other Circuits in holding that Monell's prohibition against respondeat superior liability applies not only when the plaintiffs seek money damages but also injunctive relief. The Court noted that this view is not unanimous around the Circuits, so the Supreme Court may someday resolve this issue. Since the Second Circuit resolved that issue in this case, that ends the debate in these parts.
Second, while Monell recognizes municipal liability where decisionmakers fail to supervise their subordinates, that's always been a difficult way to get around Monell. The plaintiff has to show that the high-ranking supervisors knew to a moral certainty that their failure to supervise would result in a rights violation. But here, according to the Court of Appeals, it was not enough for the plaintiffs to argue that the State had a "non-delegable duty" to ensure that the City was in compliance with the welfare laws. That's no different from asserting respondeat superior liability, the Court held, because it would make the State automatically responsible for the City's failures. Since plaintiffs could not otherwise show that the City's welfare policies were patently inadequate, requiring the State to intervene to ensure that the welfare policies were fairly administered, their inadequate supervision argument -- theoretically another way to get around Monell -- failed.
The moral of the story is that, once again, efforts to get around Monell's general prohibition against suing superior officers or municipalities are not easy, even when the subordinate officers have utterly failed in respecting civil rights. Relief in these cases is against the subordinate officers in their personal capacities, not the municipalities.