Municipal corporations Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Local political subdivisions of state governments, normally afforded more home rule powers but less territory than other political subdivisions such as counties and townships.

Most of the cases involving municipal corporations that come before the Supreme Court involve violations of section 1983,Section 1983 legislation passed by Congress soon after the Civil War. Its purpose was to protect freed African Americans and whites loyal to the Union from being deprived of their federal constitutional rights by people acting under state law in the former Confederate states. However, the text, as well as the judicial construction of section 1983, makes it applicable to state and local officials in all states. The section, in part, reads as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State…subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

Section 1983 was not often invoked before the latter part of the twentieth century. As it came into use, the question arose whether a municipality is a “person” within the meaning of this statutory language. In 1978 the Supreme Court decided that question in the affirmative, although it limited a municipality’s liability for the acts of its officials, officers, and employees to situations in which the municipality was the moving force behind the constitutional violation. The individual liability of municipal officials, officers, and employees under the section is also limited by doctrines of legislative, prosecutorial, and qualified immunity.

The Court developed the law of section 1983 municipal liability and the various associated official immunities during the last three decades of the twentieth century. The result of the Court’s recognition of municipal liability for federal constitutional and statutory violations has been a surge of civil actions brought under the section.

Origin of Section 1983

Section 1983 is the amended version of legislation that originated as section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.Civil Rights Act of 1871 That act was designed to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.Fourteenth Amendment As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained in Jett v. Dallas Independent School District[case]Jett v. Dallas Independent School District[Jett v. Dallas Independent School District] (1989), the immediate impetus for the 1871 act was evidence of widespread acts of violence perpetrated against the freed slaves and whites loyal to the Union by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Although other sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 specifically addressed the problem of the private acts of violence perpetrated by groups such as the Klan, section 1 provided a civil remedy in monetary damages and injunctive relief against people who, under color of state law, deprived others of their federal constitutional rights (which by that time included the Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the laws). In other words, section 1 was directed against state and local governmental authorities and other people acting under color of state law, as distinguished from purely private individuals.

Section 1 of the 1871 act was modeled on section 2 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which created criminal penalties for such actions. Although some Supreme Court justices have expressed belief that the 1866 act also created such civil remedies (as seen in Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.’s dissenting opinion in Jett), the Civil Rights Act of 1871 explicitly provided for civil remedies and was passed for the express purpose of enforcing the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. Accordingly, the Court observed in Lynch v. Household Finance Corp.[case]Lynch v. Household Finance[Lynch v. Household Finance] (1972) that the 1871 act is the direct lineal ancestor of section 1983.

As originally enacted in 1871, the text of section 1983 referred only to the deprivation of federal constitutional rights. In 1874 Congress amended the provision to include deprivation of rights under federal laws as well as under the U.S. Constitution as a basis for civil liability. Although some federal statutes have been held enforceable against municipalities through section 1983, others such as Title VII have direct application to municipalities.

The Monell Case

The Court concluded in Monroe v. Pape[case]Monroe v. Pape[Monroe v. Pape] (1961) that municipalities were not “persons” who could be sued within the meaning of section 1983. That finding was based on the Court’s analysis of the legislative history of section 1983. However, the Court revisited the question of municipal liability in Monell v. Department of Social Services[case]Monell v. Department of Social Services[Monell v. Department of Social Services] (1978). In Monell, the Court reinterpreted the legislative history of section 1983 and held, for the first time, that a municipality could be liable under the provisions of that statute.

Before the Court’s decision in Monell, section 1983 litigation was not quantitatively significant. Although individual municipal officials could be sued in their individual capacities, the inability to sue the municipality itself often meant that there was almost no hope of collecting a monetary judgment. Furthermore, municipal officials sued in their individual capacities enjoyed various legal immunities that could be difficult to overcome. The Court’s 1978 Monell decision fundamentally changed section 1983 litigation because it made it possible for municipalities to be sued for monetary compensation under that statute. Section 1983 litigation thereafter occupied a substantial portion of federal court dockets.

Limitations on Section 1983 Municipal Liability

Monell was not an unqualified victory for section 1983 plaintiffs. In that case, the Court held that municipalities could not be held liable under the tort concept of respondeat superior for the acts of their officials, officers, or employees. (Respondeat superior is a doctrine frequently applied in state law tort cases, for example, accident cases, where the employer is held liable for the negligence of an employee when the employee was acting in the course and scope of the employment.) Rather, the municipality itself has to be the moving force behind the violation. If, for example, municipal legislation results in a section 1983 violation, the municipality could be held liable.

However, section 1983 scenarios often involve acts of subordinate municipal officials, officers, or employees. For example, many section 1983 cases involve excessive force or false arrest claims against municipal police officers under Fourth Amendment concepts. The Court held in City of Canton v. Harris[case]City of Canton v. Harris[City of Canton v. Harris] (1989) that a municipality could be liable under section 1983 if the plaintiff establishes that a police officer committed a Fourth Amendment violation that resulted from the municipality’s deliberate indifference in failing to train its police officers properly.

Other cases interpreting the “moving force” concept of Monell have involved complicated questions regarding who is the municipal policymaker in connection with a particular act or omission. In Board of County Commissioners v. Brown[case]Board of County Commissioners v. Brown[Board of County Commissioners v. Brown] (1997), the Court held that political subdivisions (including municipalities) could not be held liable under section 1983 for constitutional injuries allegedly traceable to ill-considered hiring decisions, unless the hiring decision demonstrated a conscious disregard for a high risk that the person hired would commit the unconstitutional act at issue.


Regardless of whether the municipality itself is liable under section 1983, an individual municipal official, officer, or employee can be held personally liable, absent the protection of a specific immunity, for that person’s own federal constitutional or statutory violations. In Kentucky v. Graham[case]Kentucky v. Graham[Kentucky v. Graham] (1985), the Court held that such personal or individual liability must be satisfied from the individual’s own personal assets.

The Court has mitigated the severity of section 1983 individual capacity liability by developing various immunities, derived from common law jurisprudence, applicable to individual capacity claims. The Court held in Bogan v. Scott-Harris[case]Bogan v. Scott-Harris[Bogan v. Scott-Harris] (1998) that individual municipal officials acting in a legislative capacity have an absolute immunity with regard to individual capacity liability in section 1983 litigation. This means that officials acting in a legislative capacity cannot be held individually liable under section 1983 under any circumstances.

In a long series of cases, the Supreme Court also held that persons acting in a prosecutorial capacity are protected by absolute immunity with regard to their section 1983 individual capacity liability. Such absolute immunity does not, however, apply when a prosecutor is acting in an investigative capacity. For example, in Kalina v. Fletcher[case]Kalina v. Fletcher[Kalina v. Fletcher] (1997), the Court held that a prosecutor who personally attested to the truth of averments (assertations during pleading) in a probable cause certification was acting in an investigative, not prosecutorial, capacity and was accordingly not entitled to absolute immunity.

If an individual municipal official, officer, or employee is not protected by absolute immunity, the doctrine of federal qualified immunity may nevertheless apply. The Court first set forth the modern version of qualified immunity in Harlow v. Fitzgerald[case]Harlow v. Fitzgerald[Harlow v. Fitzgerald] (1982) and continued to follow the Harlow principles in several later cases. Qualified immunity shields municipal actors from individual capacity liability for civil damages in section 1983 litigation insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Harlow adopted a doctrine of objective legal reasonableness, rather than subjective good faith, in order to permit the defeat of insubstantial claims without resort to trial. Accordingly, the Court later found the immunity to be an entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation, conditioned on the resolution of the essentially legal immunity question. These fundamental principles of qualified immunity were restated by the Court in Behrens v. Pelletier[case]Behrens v. Pelletier[Behrens v. Pelletier] (1996).

Although municipalities and municipal officials, officers, and employees may be sued for monetary compensation or injunctive relief in a section 1983 action, the plaintiff in such an action must overcome several obstacles. The municipality itself is not liable unless it was the moving force behind the alleged constitutional or statutory violation. Moreover, a section 1983 claim against a municipal official, officer, or employee must overcome the barriers of the various immunity doctrines that the Court has developed to protect individual municipal actors sued in their individual capacities.

Further Reading
  • Most of the publications regarding municipal liability in section 1983 actions are designed for legal practitioners. However, Michael G. Collins’s Section 1983 Litigation in a Nutshell (Eagan, Minn.: West Publishing, College & School Division, 1997) provides a summary of the primary aspects of section 1983 litigation. An American Bar Association publication also provides an overview of section 1983 litigation, though it is somewhat out-of-date: Robert H. Freilich and Richard G. Carlisle’s Section 1983, Sword and Shield: Civil Rights Violations the Liability of Urban, State, and Local Government (Chicago: American Bar Association, 1983). Section 1983 Litigation (Vols. 1-3. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997) is a widely used reference book among attorneys. The first two volumes, by Martin A. Schwartz and John E. Kirklin, treat in some depth, with frequent citations to published judicial decisions, the various types of section 1983 claims and the applicable defenses and immunities and also issues regarding the recovery of attorneys’ fees. The third volume, by John W. Witt, Edward J. Hanlon, and Stephen M. Ryals, contains legal forms for the section 1983 practitioner. Steven H. Steinglass’s Section 1983 Litigation in State Courts (Eagan, Minn.: West Group, 1987) is a guide to section 1983 litigation in state courts, which have concurrent jurisdiction with federal courts over section 1983 actions. Sheldon H. Nahmod’s Section 1983 Civil Rights Anthology (Cincinnati: Anderson, 1997) and Rodney A. Smolla and Chester James Antieu’s Federal Civil Rights Acts (3rd ed., Eagan, Minn.: West Group, 1994) are other useful treatises on section 1983 litigation.

Civil Rights Acts

Constitutional law

Fourteenth Amendment

Incorporation doctrine

Monell v. Department of Social Services

State action

Categories: History