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Failure to Train as a Theory of Section 1983 Liability in the 11th Circuit

Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 has developed to the point that it provides a remedy for the violation of federally-protected rights by governments and its employees. That was not always the case, however. Enacted in 1871, the statute fell into almost a century of disuse, as the Supreme Court construed its reach very narrowly. See Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18 (1883). Then, in 1961, the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision of Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S. Ct. 473, (1961) in which Justice Douglas, writing for the majority, determined that the policy behind the statute was "to afford a federal right in federal courts because . . . claims of citizens to the enjoyment of rights, privileges, and immunities guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment might be denied by state agencies." 365 U.S. at 180. Monroe thus signaled the resurrection of § 1983, and the role and influence of the federal courts in enforcing civil rights and liberties has never been the same since.

Despite the wide-ranging reach of Monroe and its progeny, civil litigants were still precluded from suing governmental entities themselves until 1978, when the Supreme Court decided the case of Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018 (1978). Whereas prior case law had determined that only individuals could be defendants under the statute, the Supreme Court in Monell decided that governments could be "persons" as well under the language of § 1983. The court clarified, however, that such liability could not be based on a respondeat superior basis; instead, for liability to attach against a governmental entity, the federal claim must have resulted from a policy or custom of the government that was the "moving force" behind the violation.

The decision in Monell has spawned a tremendous amount of litigation defining the quantum and type of evidence that is necessary to show the requisite "policy of custom" § 1983 purposes. Indeed, in City of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 105 S.Ct. 2427 (1985), Justice Brennan prophesied that "there may be many ways of proving the existence of a municipal policy of custom that can cause a deprivation of a constitutional right." One such avenue that is regularly litigated is the theory that the government failed to properly train its employees in the particular area at issue in the litigation. This theory gained prominence with the Supreme Court's issuance of its decision in City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 109 S. Ct. 1197 (1989). This paper focuses on the requirements under the case law and the statute for establishing liability under a failure to train theory in the Eleventh Circuit.


No discussion of failure to train as a theory for establishing governmental entity liability under § 1983 could be complete without a thorough understanding of the Supreme Court's decision in Canton v. Harris. The facts of that case are straightforward: a woman who was acting strangely was taken to the Canton Police Department for "processing." She was not given any medical attention at the police station. Upon her release, she was taken by her family to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with an emotional disorder and received treatment over the course of a year. She filed a § 1983 lawsuit a short time later, alleging a violation of her due process rights by the city's failure to provide her with necessary medical attention while she was in police custody.

One of Harris' theories of municipal liability under § 1983 was that the City of Canton had failed to adequately train its officers about providing medical assistance beyond emergency first-aid treatment. The actual policy in place provided for the person in custody to be taken to a hospital based on the discretion of the jailers. The district court found this policy sufficient to allow a jury to resolve its constitutionality. Although the circuit court reversed based on faulty jury instructions, the circuit court agreed that a government could be liable for failure to train when it acted "recklessly, intentionally, or with gross negligence."

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the applicable standard for proving liability based on a failure to train theory. First, the court cited to its reasoning from Monell and its progeny that "it is only when the 'execution of the government's policy or custom . . . inflicts the injury' that the municipality can be held liable under § 1983." 489 U.S. at 385, quoting Springfield v. Kibbe, 480 U.S. 257, 267, 107 S. Ct. 1114, 1119 (1987) (O'Connor, J., dissenting). After acknowledging that "there are limited circumstances in which an allegation of a 'failure to train' can be the basis for liability under § 1983," the court held as follows:

the inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for § 1983 liability only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact. 489 U.S. at 387-88.

The reason for the deliberate indifference standard is that liability by governments for constitutional violations requires that a conscious choice was made in formulating a policy or custom. The individual shortcomings of a police officer, or even the negligent administration of an "otherwise sound program" are insufficient to allow the governmental entity to be held liable under § 1983. The court was concerned that allowing a lesser standard of culpability than deliberate indifference would result in de facto vicarious liability because a § 1983 plaintiff could always point to something that the government could have done differently in its training program that would have prevented the harm. Lastly, the court expressed a federalism concern: the federal courts should not be in the business of "second-guessing municipal employee-training programs."

For all these reasons, the Harris court concluded that allegations that a "city's failure to provide training to municipal employees resulted in the constitutional deprivation . . . are cognizable under § 1983 . . . [only when the] city's failure to train reflects deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of its inhabitants." 489 U.S. at 392.

On a practical level, the most important part of the Harris decision appears not in the body of the opinion, but in a footnote. Specifically, in footnote 10, the Supreme Court mapped out general areas in which the requisite "deliberate indifference" might be shown. Quoted verbatim, footnote 10 reads as follows:

For example, city policymakers know to a moral certainty that their police officers will be required to arrest fleeing felons. The city has armed its officers with firearms, in part to allow them to accomplish this task. Thus, the need to train officers in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force, see Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 105 S. Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985), can be said to be "so obvious," that the failure to do so could properly be characterized as "deliberate indifference" to constitutional rights.

It could also be that the police, in exercising their discretion, so often violate constitutional rights that the need for further training must have been plainly obvious tot he city policymakers, who, nevertheless, are "deliberately indifferent" to the need." 489 U.S. at 390, n.10.

Indeed, it is from this language that much of the litigation over the sufficiency of evidence to show liability for a government's failure to train has arisen.

In sum, as the Harris case and its holdings makes clear, the viability of a failure to train claim is heavily dependent on the facts presented in the record of the particular case. In general, the record must contain sufficient evidence to establish the following facts:

  1. a violation of a federally-protected right;
  2. inadequate training of employees; and
  3. causation between the inadequate training and the plaintiff's injury.

It is only when these three factors converge that the governmental entity can be held liable for constitutional harm caused a citizen.


The need for the record to contain evidence of the factors set forth in Harris is shown by a number of decision from the Eleventh Circuit. In Vineyard v. County of Murray, 990 F.2d 1207 (11th Cir.), cert. denied 510 U.S. 1024 (1993), for example, a decision in which a jury finding of inadequate training was affirmed, the county officers were found to have used excessive force in dealing with an arrestee named Vineyard, ultimately breaking his jaw. Vineyard's factual claim is that he was beaten while handcuffed, and he sued under § 1983 alleging, among other things, that the county had failed to adequately train its officers on the legitimate uses of force.

The court first found that Vineyard had, in fact, articulated a violation of a federally-protected right. "Only when it is clear that a violation of specific rights has occurred can the question of § 1983 municipal liability for the injury arise." 990 F.2d at 1211. Implicit in that statement is that had Vineyard not shown a substantive violation, the training of the officers - adequate or otherwise - would not be relevant.

Second, the court found that the record contained sufficient evidence to show that the county's policies were inadequate. Much of this proof came by way of expert testimony based on the facts of the training as testified to by the county's sheriff. Among other things, the lack of written policies combined with what the expert deemed to be inadequate guidance led the Eleventh Circuit to conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding that the county inadequately trained its officers that demonstrated deliberate indifference.

The analysis does not stop there, however: the third and final step in the analysis is whether there is evidence of causation to link the inadequate training to the injury sustained by the plaintiff. As the Vineyard court explained, "the existence of an official policy is insufficient to impose liability on the county . . . Vineyard must also show that the policy was the moving force of the constitutional violation." 990 F.2d at 1213. As phrased by the Eleventh Circuit, this inquiry is as follows: "Would the injury have been avoided had the employee been trained under a program that was not deficient?" Id. Here, again, the police procedures expert carried the day for the plaintiff, as the Eleventh Circuit relied on his testimony to uphold the jury's verdict on causation.

Vineyard is a significant decision for a number of reasons, but perhaps most because it highlights the need for the record to contain sufficient evidence to support each prong of the Canton v Harris analysis. Indeed, without the expert evidence deemed admissible in that case, there is a good chance that Vineyard's claim would have been dismissed by the district court and/or the jury award reversed on appeal.

In contrast to the result in Vineyard, where the finding of county liability was upheld, is the decision in Riley v. Newton, 94 F.3d 632 (11th Cir. 1996), cert. denied 117 S.Ct. 955 (1997). Riley involved the accidental death of plaintiff's decedent during a traffic stop by a military policeman who was accompanying a county officer on a drug investigation. The estate brought a civil rights suit claiming, among other things, that the county failed to adequately train its deputies on the use of military personnel. The district court denied the county's motion for summary judgment on this issue, finding a causal connection between the alleged inadequacy and the death.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed. First, the court found that failure to train requires evidence of deliberate indifference, which necessarily requires a choice between different options. Second, the court quoted from the Canton v. Harris decision's requirement that there must have been an obvious need for more or different training before there can be a finding of deliberate indifference sufficient for liability to attach. The court then dispensed with the plaintiff's claim in one sentence: "No facts to sustain . . . a jury finding have been offered." 94 F.3d at 638. In contrast to Vineyard, where the record was replete with lay and expert evidence satisfying all prongs of the Canton v. Harris standard, the record in Riley was deemed deficient in all respects.

A more recent decision by the Eleventh Circuit addressing a very common problem with failure to train issues: an absence of prior incidents necessary to put governments on notice of the need for more or different training. In Gold v. City of Miami, 151 F.3d 1346 (11th Cir. 1998), an individual named Gold was arrested for disorderly conduct after he repeatedly complained to police officers who had not given a ticket to someone who had parked illegally in a handicapped space. In § 1983 litigation that ensued, Miami conceded that the arrest was without probable cause. Following a jury verdict in favor of Gold, Miami appealed on several issues including Gold's allegation of inadequate training of police officers by Miami.

After reviewing the pertinent case law and the applicable standards, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that Gold had not presented evidence sufficient to show deliberate indifference on the part of the city. First, the court found that Gold had presented absolutely no evidence of prior similar incidents as would have been necessary to show that the city should have known of the need for more or different training. Second, the court rejected Gold's assertion that he did not need to show prior incidents, because the need for training other than that provided by Miami was not "obvious." Under this prong, the Eleventh Circuit cited to a more recent Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Bryan County Board of Commissioners, 520 U.S. 397, 117 S.Ct. 1382 (1997)) as holding that the only situation in which the need for training has been deemed "obvious" is in the use of firearms. Lastly, the Eleventh Circuit distinguished its decision in Vineyard based on the differences between the factual records in the two cases. Once again, the need for a fact-specific record supporting each element of the failure to train inquiry was highlighted by the court.

Finally, the decision in Sewell v. Town of Lake Hamilton, 117 F.3d 488 (11th Cir. 1997), cert. denied 118 S.Ct. 852 (1998), although not significant in and of itself, serves as an example of the outer reaches of failure to train claims. In Sewell, a city police officer brought a female back to the police station, and offered to let her go without a ticket if she submitted to a strip search by him. She initially refused, but eventually undressed, at which point she was molested by the police officer. She sued the city under § 1983, claiming that it failed to adequately train its officers not to barter arrests for sexual favors. In rejecting this claim as a matter of law, the Eleventh Circuit found that to establish deliberate indifference in a failure to train, there needs to be a likelihood that the failure to train will result in the wrong decision being made by an employee. Where the proper response to a given situation is "obvious to all without training or supervision, then the failure to train or supervise is generally not 'so likely' to produce a wrong decision as to support an inference of deliberate indifference by city policymakers to the need to train or supervise." 117 F.3d at 490, quoting Walker v. City of New York, 974 F.2d 293, 299-300 (2nd Cir. 1992), cert. denied 507 U.S. 972 (1993).


In addition to alleging that the governmental entity itself is liable under a failure to train theory, § 1983 plaintiffs can also allege that the individual responsible for training programs (typically the government's final policymaker for such issues) is liable in his individual capacity for the plaintiff's injury. This liability can attach even if the individual was not involved in the deprivation. As explained in Belcher v. City of Foley, 30 F.3d 1390 (11th Cir. 1994), supervisory liability can attach when the "'failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom subordinates come into contact' and the failure has actually caused the injury of which the plaintiff complains." Id. at 1397, quoting in part Popham v. City of Talladega, 908 F.2d 1561, 1564-65 (11th Cir. 1990).

As the above case law shows, failure to train in this context virtually mirrors the Canton v. Harris standard, with one extremely significant exception: an public employee who is sued for failure to train in his individual capacity can assert the defense of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is a complex topic in and of itself; in a nutshell, however, the doctrine shields government employees from liability unless they violated clearly established law of which a reasonable official in their position would have known. See generally Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738 (1982).

Case law in the Eleventh Circuit puts the burden squarely on the plaintiff to show the law is "clearly established." Ordinarily, this burden is not met unless the plaintiff can reference a decision that predates the official's actions, and that defines the particular conduct as unconstitutional in concrete and fact-specific terms. See Lassiter v Alabama A & M University, 28 F.3d 1146 (11th Cir. 1994) (en banc); Jenkins v. Talladega City Board of Education, 115 F.3d 821, 823 (11th Cir.) (en banc), cert. denied, 118 S.Ct. 412 (1997). In addition, Eleventh Circuit jurisprudence indicates that to overcome a government employee's qualified immunity, the case that holds the conduct to be unconstitutional should emanate from the United States Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit, or the highest court of the state in which the federal action is pending. Flores v. Satz, 137 F.3d 1275, 1277-78 (11th Cir. 1998).

Given the onerous burdens placed on plaintiffs to rebut a qualified immunity defense, it is quite possible that the same evidence that is deemed sufficient to show liability for failure to train by a governmental entity could be deemed insufficient for liability to attach against the individual responsible for training the officers in the first place. Because the standard for succeeding on a failure to train theory is quite stringent even without the qualified immunity defense - and indeed requires a showing of "deliberate indifference" by the government - the possibility of the government being liable but not the individual may be more hypothetical than realistic. In any event, it is clear that a supervisor sued in his individual capacity for failure to train can assert qualified immunity as a defense. See, e.g., Riley v. Newton, 94 F.3d 632, 637 (11th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 117 S.Ct. 955 (1997) (qualified immunity upheld for sheriff because plaintiff "cited no specific law that [the sheriff's] inaction might have violated"); Belcher v. City of Foley, 30 F.3d 1390, 1397-98 (11th Cir. 1994) (qualified immunity upheld because "at the time of Mr. Belcher's death, the law was not clearly established that Chief Anderson's failure to train his officers in the handling of suicidal inmates amounted to deliberate indifference to Mr. Belcher's constitutional rights").


Case law construing § 1983 has become a labyrinth of procedural and substantive rules. Complicating matters even further is the fact that new issues are constantly emerging, and the constitutional rights at the root of all § 1983 litigation are themselves fluid concepts. Although failure to train is but one subset of governmental liability litigation, it arises with frequency as a theory for redressing constitutional wrongs. Those whose practices include civil rights litigation therefore need to be familiar with the stringent standards applied in this complex area of the law.

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