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Turpin v. Mailet

decided: April 8, 1980.

THOMAS TURPIN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
JOSEPH MAILET, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal by the City of West Haven from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut entered by Judge Jon O. Newman after a jury trial in which the City was found liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a violation of plaintiff's constitutional rights on the part of municipal employees. Reversed .

Before Moore and Mansfield, Circuit Judges, and Palmieri, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Mansfield

With the decision in Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S. Ct. 2018, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611 (1978), the Supreme Court permitted local governmental entities to be sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutional violations caused by acts committed pursuant to "official policy." This case raises the question of what type conduct on the part of municipal employees can constitute an "official policy" within the meaning of Monell. The City of West Haven appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut entered by Judge Jon O. Newman after a jury trial, holding the City liable for causing plaintiff's unlawful arrest. The City contends that the district court erroneously instructed the jury as to the applicable standard of liability under Monell and that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of an "official policy." We hold that the court correctly stated the applicable legal principles. However, we reverse because of the insufficiency of the evidence.

FACTS

During the early evening hours of September 18, 1971, two City of West Haven police officers, Christopher Columbus Skeens and Robert J. Weber, responded to a call involving an altercation between two teenage girls. As the girl alleged to be the "attacker" was being escorted to the police car a 15-year old teenage boy, Thomas Turpin, came to her rescue. According to Turpin's version of the ensuing moments, he was grabbed by Skeens and clubbed on the back of the head. The resulting laceration required six stitches. According to the officers, Skeens merely threw aside Turpin, who injured his head as he fell. Turpin was arrested and subsequently prosecuted for breach of the peace, though the Juvenile Court later declined to convict.

On December 10, 1971, Turpin filed a complaint with the City of West Haven Board of Police Commissioners requesting that the Board investigate the incident and take disciplinary action against Skeens. On June 13, 1972, however, Turpin withdrew that complaint and instead instituted a federal action against Skeens in the District of Connecticut, claiming that he had been unlawfully arrested, prosecuted and subjected to excessive force, all in violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In a decision rendered February 20, 1975, Judge Newman, then of the district court, held that plaintiff's arrest and prosecution were constitutionally proper but that Skeens had used excessive force in effectuating the arrest. Turpin was awarded $3,500 in damages.

The decision of the district court was one of several issues taken up on April 8, 1975, at a regular meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners, which had received a letter from Skeen's attorney, hired by the City, to the effect that he thought Skeens was blameless and that the district judge's decision was erroneous. The Board declined to take any action against Skeens. Thereafter, the Board received a letter from plaintiff's father, dated April 9, 1975, and from plaintiff's attorney, dated May 1, 1975, criticizing the Board for failing to discipline Skeens.

The incident giving rise to the present lawsuit occurred on May 6, 1975, when City of West Haven police officer Joseph Mailet arrested Turpin on a charge of disorderly conduct. Within a month the charge was nolle prossed by the assistant prosecuting attorney. On July 15, 1975, Officer Skeens was promoted to the Detective Bureau.

On July 25, 1975, Turpin, claiming that his arrest on May 6, 1975, violated his civil rights, commenced suit for damages against Officer Mailet under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3) on the ground that Mailet acted with malice toward Turpin as a result of Turpin's successful suit against Skeens. The complaint also sought to hold the City of West Haven liable in damages under the Fourteenth Amendment on the ground that the City's failure to discipline Skeens had encouraged members of the West Haven Police Department to believe, in light of the widespread animosity generated against Turpin as a result of his lawsuit against Skeens, that they could violate Turpin's rights with impunity.

The district court dismissed the complaint against the City, holding that under the circumstances presented, a right of action could not be implied directly from the Fourteenth Amendment. In Turpin v. Mailet, 579 F.2d 152 (2d Cir. 1978) (en banc) ("Turpin I "), however, we disagreed and held that where unconstitutional actions of employees are "authorized, sanctioned or ratified by municipal officials or by bodies functioning at a policy making level," the municipality could be held liable for damages under the Fourteenth Amendment. 579 F.2d at 164-68. We further held that the allegations of Turpin's complaint that the Board of Commissioners, aware that the growing animus toward Turpin presented a threat to his liberties, had by failing to discipline Skeens and indeed by promoting him knowingly encouraged the violation of his rights by the police were sufficient to state a cause of action and remanded the case for a determination of the merits.

One day after our Turpin I decision the Supreme Court in Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S. Ct. 2018, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611 (1978), overruled Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S. Ct. 473, 5 L. Ed. 2d 492 (1961), and held that local governments could be sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for causing the invasion of constitutional rights. The Supreme Court then vacated our Turpin I decision, 439 U.S. 974, 99 S. Ct. 554, 58 L. Ed. 2d 645 (1978), instructing us to reconsider our prior ruling in light of the standards established by Monell. In view of Turpin's allegations, which met these standards, we reinstated our prior decision with instructions to the district court to permit plaintiff to proceed under § 1983. 591 F.2d 426 (2d Cir. 1979) (en banc) ("Turpin II ").

The matter was then tried to a jury by District Judge Newman. One disputed issue was whether there was probable cause for Mailet to arrest Turpin on a charge of disorderly conduct. Mailet testified that Turpin was obstructing pedestrian traffic at the time of the arrest, which Turpin, supported by other witnesses, denied. Turpin testified that he was arrested simply because he questioned Mailet's order to "get going."

Plaintiff's theory at trial was that the City's failure to discipline Skeens, in light of the publicity given to the earlier lawsuit and the animosity generated among members of the police department by that lawsuit, encouraged Mailet to harass Turpin. In support of that theory, plaintiff introduced two newspaper articles, respectively dated April 9, 1975, and May 5, 1975, discussing the failure of the Board to discipline Skeens. As evidence of animosity on the part of police officers toward Turpin he showed that Mailet and others were aware of the lawsuit against Skeens, that when Mailet arrested him Mailet called him by name, and that when he was brought to the police station he was verbally harangued by some members of the department, including one officer who commented that Turpin's occupation was "hanging around corners and suing police officers." All of this was disputed by Mailet and the City.

As part of its defense that its decision not to discipline Skeens did not encourage harassment of Turpin, the City attempted to show that Turpin's withdrawal of the formal complaint against Skeens in 1972 barred a Board investigation of Skeens. However, on cross-examination the City's own witnesses testified that the Board had the right ...


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