Weekly Law Resume - August 4, 2011 - Civil Rights—Municipal Liability: Jury Instructions on "Custom and Practice" under Monell Doctrine


Robert E. Hunter, D.V.M., et al. v. County of Sacramento, et al. United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (July 26, 2011)

Under the doctrine the U.S. Supreme Court set forth in Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978), a municipality sued for a deprivation of federal civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 may only be liable if a municipal policy, custom or practice resulted in the alleged deprivation. In Hunter v. County of Sacramento, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed whether § 1983 plaintiffs are entitled to jury instructions detailing factual circumstances that may constitute a municipal custom or practice, where the Circuit's own Model Instructions employ a much more general definition.

Plaintiffs Robert Hunter and Howard Eley alleged that deputies employed by the County Sheriff's Department used excessive force against them while the plaintiffs were in pre-trial detention at the County's jail. The defendants moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted on all causes of action except the Monell claim against the County.

The district court's denial of summary judgment on the Monell claim rested primarily on the declaration of plaintiffs' expert, Lieutenant Twomey, a former employee of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. Lt. Twomey declared that there were 40 to 50 "major incidents" of excessive force at the jail from 2000 to 2005, and that jail officials repeatedly failed to investigate the incidents, discipline the guards or take other action to address the problem. The district court found that this evidence created a material issue of fact as to whether the County had a custom or practice of using excessive force.

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