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[Plaintiff] may prove the existence of an official custom by showing the existence of a practice that is so widespread and well settled that it constitutes a standard operating procedure of [municipality]. A single action by a lower level employee does not suffice to show an official custom. But a practice may be an official custom if it is so widespread and well-settled as to have the force of law, even if it has not been formally approved. [You may find that such a custom existed if there was a practice that was so well settled and widespread that the policymaking officials of [municipality] either knew of it or should have known of it.71 [I instruct you that [name official(s)] [is] [are] the policymaking official[s] for [describe particular subject].72]]
If you find that such an official custom was the cause of and the moving force behind the violation of [plaintiff’s] [specify right], then you have found that [municipality] caused that violation.
COMMENT Even in the absence of an official policy, a municipality may incur liability if an official custom causes a constitutional tort. See Beck v. City of Pittsburgh, 89 F.3d 966, 971 (3d Cir. 1996).73 “Custom... can be proven by showing that a given course of conduct, although not specifically endorsed or authorized by law, is so well settled and permanent as virtually to constitute law.” Bielevicz v. Dubinon, 915 F.2d 845, 850 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Board of County Com'rs of Bryan County, Okl. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404 (1997) (“[A]n act performed pursuant to a ‘custom’ that has not been formally approved by an appropriate decisionmaker may fairly subject a municipality to liability on the theory that the relevant practice is so widespread as to have the force of law.”).
As these statements suggest, evidence of a single incident without more will not suffice to establish the existence of a custom: “A single incident by a lower level employee acting under color of law... does not suffice to establish either an official policy or a custom. However, if custom can be established by other means, a single application of the custom suffices to establish that it was done pursuant to official policy and thus to establish the agency's liability.” Fletcher v. O'Donnell, 867 F.2d 791, 793 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808 (1985) (plurality opinion)). For example, plaintiff can present evidence of a pattern of similar incidents and inadequate responses to those incidents in order to demonstrate custom through municipal acquiescence. See Beck, 89 F.3d at 972 (“These complaints include the Debold incident, which, although it occurred after Beck's experience, may have evidentiary value for a jury's consideration whether the City and policymakers had a pattern of tacitly approving the use of excessive force.”).
The weight of Third Circuit caselaw indicates that the plaintiff must make some showing that a policymaking official knew of the custom and acquiesced in it.74 Language in Jett v. Dallas Independent School District, 491 U.S. 701 (1989), could be read to contemplate such a requirement, though the Jett Court did not have occasion to consider that issue in detail.75 In a number of subsequent cases, the Court of Appeals has read Jett to require knowledge and acquiescence. In Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469 (3d Cir. 1990), the Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of j.n.o.v. in favor of the City on the plaintiffs’ Section 1983 claims of sexual harassment by their coworkers and supervisors. The court stressed that to establish municipal liability “it is incumbent upon a plaintiff to show that a policymaker is responsible either for the policy or, through acquiescence, for the custom.” Id. at 1480. Thus, “given the jury verdict in favor of [Police Commissioner] Tucker, the lowest level policymaker implicated,” j.n.o.v. for the City was warranted. Id. at 1480; see also Jiminez v. All American Rathskeller, Inc., 503 F.3d 247, 250 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Andrews with approval). In Simmons v. City of Philadelphia, 947 F.2d 1042 (3d Cir. 1991), a fractured court affirmed a judgment in favor of the mother of a man who committed suicide while detained in a city jail. See id. at 1048. Judge Becker, announcing the judgment of the court, viewed Jett as holding “that even when a plaintiff alleges that a municipal custom or practice, as opposed to a municipal policy, worked a constitutional deprivation, the plaintiff must both identify officials with ultimate policymaking authority in the area in question and adduce scienter like evidence – in this case of acquiescence – with respect to them.” Simmons, 947 F.2d at 1062 (opinion of Becker, J.). Chief Judge Sloviter wrote separately to stress that officials’ reckless disregard of conditions of which they should have known should suffice to meet the standard, see id. at 1089-91 (Sloviter, C.J., concurring in part and in the judgment), but she did not appear to question the view that some sort of knowledge and acquiescence was required. Citing Andrews and Simmons, the court in Baker v. Monroe Township, 50 F.3d 1186 (3d Cir. 1995), held that the plaintiffs “must show that a policymaker for the Township authorized policies that led to the violations or permitted practices that were so permanent and well settled as to establish acquiescence,” id. at 1191.76 See also Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1212 (3d Cir. 1996) (“[A] prerequisite to establishing [municipal] liability... is a showing that a policymaker was responsible either for the policy or, through acquiescence, for the custom.”).
Though it thus appears that a showing of knowledge and acquiescence is required, a number of cases suggest that actual knowledge need not be proven.77 Rather, some showing of constructive knowledge may suffice; this view is reflected in the first bracketed sentence in Instruction 4.6.6. For example, the court seemed to approve a constructive-knowledge standard in Bielevicz v. Dubinon, 915 F.2d 845 (3d Cir. 1990). Citing Andrews and Jett, the court stated that the “plaintiff must show that an official who has the power to make policy is responsible for either the affirmative proclamation of a policy or acquiescence in a well settled custom.” Bielevicz, 914 F.2d at 850.78 But the Bielevicz court took care to note that “[t]his does not mean... that the responsible decisionmaker must be specifically identified by the plaintiff's evidence. Practices so permanent and well settled as to have the force of law [are] ascribable to municipal decisionmakers.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).79 The Bielevicz court then proceeded to discuss ways of showing that the municipal custom caused the constitutional violation, and explained that policymakers’ failure to respond appropriately to known past violations could provide the requisite evidence of causation: “If the City is shown to have tolerated known misconduct by police officers, the issue whether the City's inaction contributed to the individual officers' decision to arrest the plaintiffs unlawfully in this instance is a question of fact for the jury.” Id. at 851. In Beck v. City of Pittsburgh, 89 F.3d 966, 971 (3d Cir. 1996), the court stated that custom can be shown when government officials’ practices are “so permanent and well settled as to virtually constitute law,” id. (internal quotation marks omitted), and then continued: “Custom... may also be established by evidence of knowledge and acquiescence.” Id.80 In holding that the plaintiffs were entitled to reach a jury on their claims, the Beck court focused on evidence “that the Chief of Police of Pittsburgh and his department knew, or should have known, of Officer Williams's violent behavior in arresting citizens,” id. at 973 – suggesting that the Beck court applied a constructive-knowledge test. Likewise, in Berg v. County of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261 (2000), the court focused on whether municipal policymakers had either actual or constructive knowledge of the practice for issuing warrants. See id. at 276 (“We believe it is a more than reasonable inference to suppose that a system responsible for issuing 6,000 warrants a year would be the product of a decision maker's action or acquiescence.”). Similarly, in Estate of Roman v. Newark, 914 F.3d 789 (3d Cir. 2019), the court specifically stated that while the plaintiff must demonstrate that the city had knowledge of similar unlawful conduct in the past, he “does not need to identify a responsible decisionmaker in his pleadings.” Id. at 798. The court relied in part on a consent decree between the Department of Justice and Newark in holding that a complaint alleging a custom of unconstitutional arrests was sufficient, where violations were widespread, and the Police Department was aware of them but rarely acted on citizen complaints. Id. at 799.
The Berg court stated, however, that where the custom in question does not itself constitute the constitutional violation – but rather is alleged to have led to the violation – the plaintiff must additionally meet the deliberate-indifference test set forth in City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989):81 “If... the policy or custom does not facially violate federal law, causation can be established only by ‘demonstrat[ing] that the municipal action was taken with “deliberate indifference” as to its known or obvious consequences.’” Berg, 219 F.3d at 276 (quoting Board of County Comm'rs of Bryan County v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 407 (1997)); see also Natale v. Camden County Correctional Facility 318 F.3d 575, 585 (3d Cir. 2003) (finding a jury question on municipal liability because “the failure to establish a policy to address the immediate medication needs of inmates with serious medical conditions creates a risk that is sufficiently obvious as to constitute deliberate indifference to those inmates' medical needs”). Where a finding of deliberate indifference is required, the first bracketed sentence in Instruction 4.6.6 should be altered accordingly. Cases applying a deliberate-indifference standard for municipal liability often involve allegations of failure to adequately train, supervise or screen, see, e.g., Montgomery v. De Simone, 159 F.3d 120, 126-26 (3d Cir. 1998) (“[A] municipality's failure to train police officers only gives rise to a constitutional violation when that failure amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact.”); Estate of Roman v. Newark, 914 F.3d 789, 799 (3d Cir. 2019) (holding that failure to train, supervise, and discipline claims were also adequately pled). In cases where plaintiff seeks to establish municipal liability for failure to adequately train or supervise a municipal employee, the more specific standards set forth in Instruction 4.6.7 should be employed; Instruction 4.6.8 should be used when the plaintiff asserts municipal liability for failure to screen.
(Last Updated July 2019)
71 In cases where the plaintiff must show deliberate indifference on the part of a policymaking official, this language should be modified accordingly. See Comment.
72 This language can be used if the plaintiff introduces evidence concerning a specific policymaking official. For a discussion of whether the plaintiff must introduce such evidence, see Comment.
73 “A § 1983 plaintiff... may be able to recover from a municipality without adducing evidence of an affirmative decision by policymakers if able to prove that the challenged action was pursuant to a state ‘custom or usage.’” Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 481 n.10 (1986) (plurality opinion); see also Anela v. City of Wildwood, 790 F.2d 1063, 1069 (3d Cir. 1986) (“Even if the practices with respect to jail conditions also were followed without formal city action, it appears that they were the norm. The description of the cells revealed a long standing condition that had become an acceptable standard and practice for the City.”).
74 In B.S. v. Somerset County, 704 F.3d 250 (3d Cir. 2013), the Court of Appeals held that the County was liable for violating the plaintiff’s procedural Due Process rights because the County had a “custom of removing children from a parent's home [based on alleged abuse] without conducting a prompt post-removal hearing if another parent can take custody,” id. at 275. The court of appeals held that there was no need to resolve “who the relevant policymaker was” because of the County’s “effective admission of a custom.” Id. at 275 n.36.
75 In Jett, the Court remanded for a determination of whether the school district superintendent was a policymaking official for purposes of the plaintiff’s claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The Court instructed that on remand Section 1983's municipal-liability standards would govern. See id. at 735-36. “Once those officials who have the power to make official policy on a particular issue have been identified, it is for the jury to determine whether their decisions have caused the deprivation of rights at issue by policies which affirmatively command that it occur... , or by acquiescence in a longstanding practice or custom which constitutes the ‘standard operating procedure’ of the local governmental entity.” Id. at 737 (quoting Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 485-87 (1986) (White, J., concurring in part and in the judgment)). Though this language suggests an expectation that a custom analysis would depend on a policymaker’s knowledge and acquiescence, such a requirement was not the focus of the Court’s opinion in Jett. Moreover, the Jett Court’s quotation from Justice White’s partial concurrence in Pembaur is somewhat puzzling. In Pembaur the Court held “that municipal liability may be imposed for a single decision by municipal policymakers under appropriate circumstances.” Pembaur, 475 U.S. at 480. Because Pembaur focused on instances where a policymaker directed the challenged activity, municipal liability under the “custom” theory was not at issue in the case. See id. at 481 n.10 (plurality opinion). Justice White’s Pembaur concurrence does not suggest otherwise; the language quoted by the Jett Court constitutes Justice White’s explanation of his reasons for agreeing that the policymakers’ directives in Pembaur could ground municipal liability. Justice White explained:
The city of Cincinnati frankly conceded that forcible entry of third party property to effect otherwise valid arrests was standard operating procedure. There is no reason to believe that respondent county would abjure using lawful means to execute the capiases issued in this case or had limited the authority of its officers to use force in executing capiases. Further, the county officials who had the authority to approve or disapprove such entries opted for the forceful entry, a choice that was later held to be inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment. Vesting discretion in its officers to use force and its use in this case sufficiently manifested county policy to warrant reversal of the judgment below.
Pembaur, 475 U.S. at 485 (White, J., concurring in part and in the judgment). Thus, the Jett Court’s quote from Justice White’s Pembaur opinion further supports the inference that the Jett Court did not give sustained attention to the contours of the custom branch of the municipal-liability doctrine.
76 The Baker plaintiffs failed to show that the municipal police officer on the scene was a policymaker and failed to introduce evidence concerning municipal practices, and thus the court held that their claims against the city concerning the use of guns and handcuffs during a search were properly dismissed. See id. at 1194; see also id. at 1195 (upholding dismissal of illegal search claims against city due to lack of evidence “that Monroe Township expressly or tacitly authorized either of the searches”).
77 In Andrews, the court suggested that Police Commissioner Tucker’s lack of actual knowledge was significant to the court’s holding that the municipal-liability claim failed: “[A]lthough Tucker reviewed the decision made by AID with respect to plaintiffs' complaints, he personally did not observe or acquiesce in any sexual harassment, and he was not convinced that the AID decisions were motivated by sexual animus....” 895 F.2d at 1481. However, the court also noted that “[t]his is not a case where there was a longstanding practice which was completely ignored by the policymaker who was absolved by the jury,” id. at 1482 – a caveat that suggests the possibility that in such a case constructive knowledge might play a role in the acquiescence analysis.
78 See also Watson v. Abington Tp., 478 F.3d 144, 156 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Bielevicz with approval on this point). The Watson court’s explanation of its rejection of the plaintiff’s municipal-liability claim seems compatible with a constructive-knowledge standard. See Watson, 478 F.3d at 157 (rejecting a custom-based municipal liability claim because, inter alia, the plaintiffs failed to show “that what happened at the Scoreboard was so widespread that a decisionmaker must have known about it”).
79 See also Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1213 (3d Cir. 1996) (quoting Bielevicz on this point). Similarly, in Natale v. Camden County Correctional Facility, 318 F.3d 575 (3d Cir. 2003), the court did not pause to identify a specific policymaking official, but rather found a jury question based on “evidence that [Prison Health Services] turned a blind eye to an obviously inadequate practice that was likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights,” id. at 584.
80 This language might be read to suggest that knowledge and acquiescence are merely one option for establishing a municipal custom. Likewise, in Fletcher v. O'Donnell, 867 F.2d 791 (3d Cir. 1989), the court, writing a few months before Jett was decided, stated that “[c]ustom may be established by proof of knowledge and acquiescence,” Fletcher, 867 F.2d at 793-94 (citing Pembaur, 475 U.S. at 481 82 n.10 (plurality opinion)) – an observation that arguably suggests there may also exist other means of showing custom. As discussed in the text, however, the Beck court seemed to focus its analysis on the question of actual or constructive knowledge.
81 Similarly, when he advocated a “scienter” requirement in Simmons, Judge Becker noted that he did not intend “to exclude from the scope of scienter's meaning a municipal policymaker's deliberately indifferent acquiescence in a custom or policy of inadequately training employees, even though ‘the need for more or different training is [very] obvious, and the inadequacy [quite] likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights.’” Simmons, 947 F.2d at 1061 n.14 (quoting City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 390 (1989)). Judge Becker’s opinion did not provide details on the application of this standard to the Simmons case, because he found that the City had waived “the argument that plaintiff failed to establish the essential ‘scienter’ element of her case.” Id. at 1066. Chief Judge Sloviter wrote separately to explain, inter alia, her belief “that Judge Becker's emphasis on production by plaintiff of ‘scienter like evidence’ when charging a municipality with deliberate indifference to deprivation of rights may impose on plaintiffs a heavier burden than mandated by the Supreme Court or prior decisions of this court.” Id. at 1089 (Sloviter, C.J., concurring in part and in the judgment). Chief Judge Sloviter stressed “that liability may be based on the City's (i.e., policymaker's) reckless refusal or failure to take account of facts or circumstances which responsible individuals should have known,” id. at 1090, and she pointed out that a standard requiring “actual knowledge of the conditions by a municipal policymaker... would put a premium on blinders,” id. at 1091.