The Buck Does Not Stop Here: Supervisory Liability in Section 1983 Cases
Kit Kinports   |   1997 U. Ill. L. Rev.

The appropriate standard for supervisory liability in Section 1983 cases has been a source of considerable disagreement among federal courts of appeals. In the absence of established Supreme Court authority on the subject, courts have rejected vicarious and negligence liability in favor of a higher culpability requirement, but they have not agreed on precisely what form this higher standard should take. In this article, Professor Kinports addresses the need for a uniform standard consistent with the statute's twin goals of compensating the victims of constitutional violations and deterring constitutional infractions.

Professor Kinports notes at the outset that lower courts have unjustifiably relied on Supreme Court opinions discussing state-of-mind requirements for particular constitutional violations and cases addressing municipal liability in Section 1983 suits in formulating the requirements for supervisory liability. She then identifies five factors considered by courts in determining whether supervisory liability should be imposed on the facts of particular cases: (1) the existence of prior similar incidents; (2) the supervisor's response to such incidents; (3) the supervisor's response to the specific incident involved in the suit; (4) the extent to which the supervisor caused the violation; and (5) the supervisor's awareness of the constitutional wrongdoing. Application of these factors has led to inconsistent results in similar cases, the author argues. She further contends that courts in general have too readily ruled in favor of supervisory officials.

As a substantive matter, Professor Kinports asserts, the standard of supervisory liability should be a national one. In addition, the author advocates a meaningful standard of culpability, which she concludes is best satisfied by a negligence standard. Liability for supervisory negligence is consistent with Supreme Court precedent as well as Section 1983's causation requirement, and concerns about protecting blameless supervisors are already assuaged by the qualified immunity defense available to executive branch officials, which the author suggests should shield supervisors if a reasonable public official in their position would not have realized that the plaintiff's constitutional rights were being violated. Professor Kinports thus concludes that it makes sense to hold supervisory officials accountable for constitutional violations caused by their negligence in supervising, training, or disciplining their subordinates.

* Professor, University of Illinois College of Law. A.B. 1976, Brown University; J.D. 1980, University of Pennsylvania. I am greatly indebted to Steve Ross for his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article, and to Aylon Schulte, Maria Dunn, and Nicole d'Arcambal for their excellent research assistance. I also gratefully acknowledge the research support of the David C. Baum Research Fund.