Monell v. Department of Social Services | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Civil Liability

In Monell v. Department of Social Services, the United States Supreme Court held that local government agencies could be held liable for civil rights violations committed by their employees under certain circumstances.

To better understand this case, it’s essential to know what took place. The case kicked off when a group of female employees sued the New York City Department of Social Services. The women claimed that they were forced to take unpaid leaves of absence while pregnant, which they believed was a violation of their civil rights.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The case eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court. The Court had to decide whether a local government body, like the Department of Social Services, could be held accountable for the alleged civil rights violations. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court said yes. They ruled that a local government could be sued under federal law for civil rights violations committed by its employees.

Impact of the Ruling

So, what does this mean? It means that if a city employee does something that violates someone’s civil rights while on the job, the city itself can be sued. However, the Court put some restrictions on this. A city can only be held accountable if the employee’s actions are part of a government policy or custom. In other words, if the city had a policy or routine that led to the civil rights violation, then they could be liable. But if the employee acted on their own, the city might not be responsible.

Applying the Ruling

Let’s make sense of this with an example. Suppose a city has a policy that requires police to search every car they stop, regardless of whether they suspect any wrongdoing. If this policy leads to illegal searches and violations of people’s rights, then the city could be held liable under the ruling in the Monell case.

Why this Ruling Matters

The Monell v. Department of Social Services case was a big deal. It gave citizens a way to hold local governments accountable for civil rights violations. It became a tool to challenge unfair practices or policies. However, it also put a responsibility on cities and local governments to ensure that their policies do not infringe on people’s civil rights.

In Conclusion

In sum, Monell v. Department of Social Services is a Supreme Court case that made local governments accountable for civil rights violations committed by their employees. The ruling emphasized that a city can be liable if the violation happened because of a policy or custom. This landmark case continues to be a critical part of discussions on civil rights and government accountability to this day.

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Last Modified: 06/04/2023

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