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Subjective Knowledge Requires Detailed Pleading in § 1983 Due Process Claims

Author: Sara C. Mills-Flood

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently clarified the pleading requirements of a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as it relates to the tricky “subjective knowledge” element. See Flores v. City of South Bend, ---F.3d---, No. 20-1603 (7th Cir. 2021). The bottom line: give the court  . 

The case involved a police officer’s fatal collision with a bystander-motorist. The decedent’s estate filed a complaint alleging detailed background facts: a group of five South Bend, Indiana police officers were assigned to patrol an area in the northwest part of the city. Two of the officers, who were responsible for traffic patrol, communicated with the other three officers through a tactical channel if they wanted assistance from the other three officers. Those two officers radioed the group at about 4:30 a.m. advising that they had spotted a vehicle speeding and planned to stop it. The other three officers in the group acknowledged the report. No one in the group indicated that the situation could be considered an emergency and no one requested assistance from any other officers outside of their group. 

However, another South Bend officer, Officer Justin Gorny, heard the group’s radio exchange. He was on duty in a residential neighborhood about two miles away from the patrol officers. Although no one had asked for external assistance or indicated an emergency, Officer Gorny sped through the area at 78 miles per hour (the speed limit was 30mph) while only infrequently using his lights or sirens. At one point he accelerated up to 98 miles per hour and reached an intersection with an obstructed view of oncoming traffic. Although his view was obstructed and he had a red light, he sped through the intersection and struck a car driven by Erica Flores, killing her.  

Ms. Flores’s estate sued Officer Gorny and the South Bend Police Department alleging that Erica’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights were violated. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss but the Court of Appeals reversed. 

In reaching its decision, the district court relied on a similar case in which the plaintiff’s estate had alleged only that the officer in question was speeding. See Hill v. Shobe, 93 F.3d 418 (7th Cir. 1996). Such allegations support “at most” a reasonable inference that the officer “created a generic risk to the general public through his reckless speeding and disregard of traffic signals.” But the allegations do not permit the inference needed for a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim: that the officer subjectively knew of the danger created by his speeding and that he consciously chose to disregard it. 

In reversing the district court, the Seventh Circuit focused on the detailed allegations in the Flores complaint. The court acknowledged that a person seeking relief for a violation of her Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process “faces a difficult task.” This difficulty is due mostly to the fact that a plaintiff must plead sufficient facts to establish that—if taken as true—the officer acted with “criminal recklessness—which is the same as deliberate indifference.” The more detailed the allegations, the better: “Identical behavior considered reasonable in an emergency situation might be criminally reckless when state actors have time to appreciate the effects of their actions.”

The court also focused on the unique facts of this particular case. In situations involving pursuit by law enforcement, officers giving chase “are supposed to act decisively and to show restraint at the same moment,” so courts have given them “more latitude to balance these competing directives” when determining whether their behavior was reasonable or reckless. However, officers like Officer Gorny who are “responding to a nonemergency situation or inserting themselves into a situation that is already under control face a different set of constraints. They cannot reasonably expect to engage in the same conduct considered acceptable in the heat of an emergency.” In other words, “Gorny’s reckless conduct, unjustified by any emergency or even an order to assist in a routine traffic stop that five officers had under control, allows the inference that he subjectively knew about the risk he created and consciously disregarded it.”

The Court of Appeals also reexamined Flores’s Monell claim, which was based on a failure-to-train theory. All told, the court stated three times that liability under this theory is “rare” and only appropriate upon a “strict threshold showing”: that “by failing to train an employee whose conduct the municipality knows to be deliberately indifferent to the public, the municipality itself demonstrates deliberate indifference to that known risk.” Judge Brennan, who acknowledged the “complexity of Monell jurisprudence in this area,” wrote a concurrence providing a helpful overview of the single-incident theory of failure-to-train liability under Monell:

  • To establish single-incident liability, a plaintiff must prove that municipal policymakers know that its employees will confront a given situation and not train for it, and the need for training must be obvious without consideration of prior violations. But there is more. The single-incident theory is reserved for the “narrow” circumstance when a municipality fails to train its employees, who “have no knowledge at all of the constitutional limits” that govern their conduct in situations they are certain to encounter. This is true even though there is no reason to assume that the municipal employees are familiar with the constitutional constraints on their own. 

It appears that Judge Brennan did not want anyone to "overread" the majority opinion "to suggest that liability under this theory is widely endorsed."

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