Saved Magazine v. Spokane Police Department, 2021 WL 5830607 (9th Cir. 2021)
I spoke at a use of force summit earlier this month. After the session, an officer asked for an explanation of Monell claims. That evening, I read this case. It is both amusing, in a very weird way, and an illustration of the Monell theory of liability.
The Spokane Public Library hosted a children’s event called “Drag Queen Story Hour.” It was well-attended. Approximately 150 protesters and 300 counter-protesters showed up. The Spokane Police Department separated the two sides into different areas of the library.
At a previous Drag Queen Story Hour event, Pastor Afshin Yaghtin attended because he was directed by God to “just show up.” When Yaghtin declined to move across the street to the designated protest zone, he was arrested. Yaghtin reported he was thrown into a “mobile prison cell, and The Mark of the Beast by Iron Maiden was blasting over the vehicle’s speakers.” Yaghtin recognized the tune from his high school days as a heavy metal fan.
The second time Yaghtin appeared at the Drag Queen Story Hour he came in his role as editor-in-chief of Saved magazine and wore his press badge. Approaching a Spokane PD sergeant, Yaghtin said he intended to interview protesters and counter-protesters for his upcoming story. The sergeant told Yaghtin he would be subject to arrest if he started “engaging people” or caused “a problem,” but told Yaghtin if he wanted to “act as the press and report on the event, you can do that.” The sergeant then broadcast to other officers that the man who had been arrested the previous week (Yaghtin) was present and acting as a reporter.
As Yaghtin passed through the counterprotest zone, he began speaking with a counter-protester he knew from prior encounters. The counter-protester asked Yaghtin whether he was the one who had advocated for the execution of gay people. Yaghtin explained that it wasn’t just his opinion; he believed death for gays was a Biblical imperative. An officer interrupted the exchange and escorted Yaghtin through the counterprotest zone.
Yaghtin could only succeed on the Monell claim if he demonstrated that the city’s ordinances, regulations, customs or policies caused the alleged unconstitutional actions, not the individual officers’ actions.
A few days after the event, Yaghtin wrote to the Spokane Chief of Police and asked whether the officers’ actions represented “the practices, policies, and official position” of the Spokane Police Department. Yaghtin subsequently sued the city and the police department, alleging violations of his First Amendment rights. Yaghtin alleged the city was liable for the officers’ conduct under the rule of Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services (436 U.S. 658 (1978)). In that case, the Supreme Court modified the former rule of absolute immunity for public entities.
Monell claims are commonly included in civil rights lawsuits against police officers because it is a way to get at the deep pockets of the city. We often hear about “failure to train” claims—these are essentially Monell claims. Everybody knows a plaintiff is not likely to recover much money from an individual police officer even in the rare case where an officer is found liable for money damages. Monell claims are aimed at the government entity as the employer, supervisor and policymaker.
To successfully sue under the Monell doctrine and hold the city (or other government entity) liable for an officer’s actions, the plaintiff must first show the officer violated a clearly established constitutional right. They must also demonstrate the violation resulted from the city’s official policy, an unofficial custom, or because the city was “deliberately indifferent” in failing to train or supervise the officer. In this case, Yaghtin had to show the officers were acting through an official city policy. Yaghtin could only succeed on the Monell claim if he demonstrated that the city’s ordinances, regulations, customs or policies caused the alleged unconstitutional actions, not the individual officers’ actions.
The trial court dismissed Yaghtin’s claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal. Yaghtin did not challenge the city’s ordinance or protest permit scheme, nor the police department’s use of separate protest zones. The city was not liable because Yaghtin alleged nothing that plausibly connected a policy, custom or practice to any constitutional violation. The court noted it is well-established that an “isolated or sporadic incident” usually will not lead to liability under Monell.
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