Humphries v. Los Angeles County is one of the lesser-known cases on the Supreme Court docket this month. Although the parties are essentially fighting over attorneys’ fees, the Court’s decision could have widespread implications for the liability of municipalities in civil rights suits.

Craig and Wendy Humphries were accused of child abuse by their teenage daughter in 2001. The Humphries were arrested by Los Angeles County sheriffs and charged with felony child abuse. All charges were eventually dismissed, and the Humphries were found “factually innocent”. In the meantime, however, the sheriffs had completed a child abuse investigation report required by a state statute, and the report on the Humphries was added to a centralized state index of child abusers. Based on the absence of any procedure to dispute their placement on this index, the Humphries sued the state and municipality under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of their due process rights.

The case was argued last Tuesday, and much of the debate was about Monell v. Department of Social Services. 436 U.S. 658 (1978), in which the Supreme Court ruled that a plaintiff could sue a municipality under § 1983, but only if the constitutional violations resulted from a municipal policy. (For example, a municipality cannot be held liable for the unconstitutional actions of a rogue police officer, but can be held liable for such actions if they result from policies or customs implemented by the police department.) The Ninth Circuit has interpreted the Monell standard to apply only when a plaintiff seeks monetary damages; plaintiffs do no need to prove that constitutional violations resulted from a municipal policy when they are seeking injunctive relief to stop the constitutional violation from continuing. The Ninth Circuit relied on this reasoning in ruling for the Humphries, but the Supreme Court has not ruled on this question.

As Prof. Steven Schwinn observes in his preview of the case, the stakes are fairly high for local governments and civil rights plaintiffs. A ruling in favor of LA County could create an incentive for municipalities to avoid enacting deliberate policies in order to protect themselves from civil rights claims, thereby reducing local government transparency and accountability.