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Seventh Circuit: Totality of the Circumstances Must be Considered to Show “Policy or Custom” by Government Agency Caused Injury for Monell Claim

Kenyatta Bridges was a pretrial detainee at the Cook County Jail in Illinois in 2014 when he fell off the top bunk and had to be hospitalized after suffering a head injury. The problem was that Bridges had a valid lower bunk pass and shouldn’t have been on the top bunk. He then filed a lawsuit in federal court against Cook County, claiming that the jail staff purposely ignored his lower bunk pass, which resulted in his injury.

However, Bridges could not sue jail staff per se for his injuries, but only the county as an entity, pursuant to Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “a local government may not be sued under [28 U.S.C. § 1983] for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agents. Instead, it is when execution of a government’s policy or custom ... inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983.” Bridges, then, had to show that a “policy or custom” of the jail led to his injuries.

This “policy or custom” doesn’t have to be a formal policy or directive by the entity. A practice that’s “widespread and well settled” can be enough. But it cannot be a random event or even a short series of random events, the Seventh Circuit has held.

To show that Cook County had a policy or custom that led to Bridges’ injury, he offered five cases over the span of about seven years in which the county had been sued by prisoners with lower bunk passes who had fallen off the top bunks and were injured. The district court, though, concluded that even if Bridges had established a widespread policy or custom of ignoring lower bunk passes, he failed to meet the standard to show that the county had acted with deliberate indifference or that it had been objectively unreasonable.

On appeal, Bridges relied on only three of the earlier cases, which the Seventh Circuit rejected. It pointed out that two of the cases were settled without any admission of liability by the county, and one was dismissed. “It is not enough to demonstrate that policymakers could, or even should, be aware of unlawful activity because it occurred more than once. The plaintiff must introduce evidence demonstrating that the unlawful practice was so pervasive that acquiescence on the part of policymakers was apparent and amounted to a policy decision,” the Court explained.

In other words, the incidents Bridges provided to support a “policy or custom” under Monell were nothing more than “isolated instances of possible misconduct or negligence on the part of individual employees,” the Court said.

A totality of the circumstances must be considered in assessing whether a policy or custom existed for Monell, the Court suggested: If “Cook County Department of Corrections housed as few inmates as Sheriff Andy Taylor’s two-cell lockup in small town Mayberry, three or five incidents in a short period of time might create a question for a jury regarding whether a practice is widespread. But more than five million people reside in Cook County, and the Department houses thousands of detainees, with hundreds entering and leaving on a daily basis. In this context, three or five incidents over a seven-year period is inadequate as a matter of law to demonstrate a widespread custom or practice.”

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Related legal case

Bridges v. Dart