The Ninth Circuit Reaffirms a Key Principle of §1983 Litigation – A Plaintiff Must Present Evidence That a Defendant Actually Participated in the Violation of the Plaintiff’s Rights

By Mitch Wrosch

From November 2005 to August 2013, Plaintiff William King was incarcerated at Twin Towers Correctional Facility, a Los Angeles County jail, where he was held as a civil detainee while awaiting the adjudication of an involuntary commitment petition under California’s Sexually Violent Predator Act (“SVPA”).  For more than six of those years in the county jail, King was confined to Administrative Segregation (“AdSeg”) along with criminal detainees. As an SVPA detainee, King was required to wear a distinctive red uniform that made clear that he had been convicted of a sex crime.  As a result, King was attacked in AdSeg by a criminal inmate who slashed King’s cheek, chin, neck, and thigh with a modified razor while shouting, “Die, baby raper, die!”

King brought suit (King v. County of Los Angeles) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the County and its Sheriff, Lee Baca, challenging, on substantive due process grounds, the conditions of his confinement in the SVPA and AdSeg units. The district court awarded summary judgment to the Sheriff in his individual capacity. King appealed.

On Appeal, the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed the standard for assessing liability against a supervisor under section 1983: A county official sued in their individual capacity may be held liable as a supervisor under § 1983 if there exists either (1) his or her personal involvement in the constitutional deprivation, or (2) a sufficient causal connection between the supervisor’s wrongful conduct and the constitutional violation. The Court stated that the requisite causal connection for liability in a defendant’s individual capacity can be established by the defendant setting in motion a series of acts by others, or by knowingly refusing to terminate a series of acts by others, which the supervisor knew or reasonably should have known would cause others to inflict a constitutional injury.

In this case, the Court held that King failed to present any evidence to establish that Sheriff Baca supervised the day-to-day operations of the jail or that he was personally involved in any constitutional deprivation King may have suffered.  In other words, King failed to show Sheriff Baca participated in the violation of King’s rights or refused to intervene to stop King’s rights from being violated.  As such, judgment was affirmed for the Sheriff on the claims against him in his individual capacity.

While the facts surrounding King’s experience may be troubling, the result, in this case, is a positive one for law enforcement and corrections agencies. It is well defined that in order to establish 1983 liability against a defendant, the plaintiff must show a link between the defendant and the violation of his constitutional rights.  Simply alleging that a Sheriff, or any supervisor for that matter, must have participated in the alleged wrongful acts solely because of their role, is insufficient evidence to support the claim. [1]

[1] The Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the County on the Monell claims and the Sheriff on the official-capacity claims, which is beyond the scope of this article. It is important to note, however, that claims against the State, e.g. CDCR, Highway Patrol, etc. or against state employees in their official capacities would fail because of Eleventh Amendment immunity. This immunity does not extend to Counties or Cities.

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