History of Unrelated Complaints Insufficient to Support Section 1983 Liability
In 2019, Audrey Malone (“Malone”) filed a pro se 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the City of Atlanta, Georgia (“City”). In her action, she alleged that the City's failure to train its police officers resulted in a violation of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, including an unconstitutional traffic stop, false arrest, false imprisonment, an unlawful seizure of her vehicle and personal items, and deliberate indifference to her serious medical needs. In support of her claim, she asserted that the City's policies and standard operating procedures (“SOP”) regarding searches and seizures were unclear, and that the City had a practice of deploying poorly trained police officers. The district court granted the City's motion for summary judgment, concluding, in relevant part that, even if Malone could show a deprivation of a constitutional right, she failed to show the City was on notice of any inadequate training policies or that the City acted with deliberate indifference. The district court also ordered “that the plaintiff take nothing; [and] that the defendant recover its costs of this action.” Malone then appealed, arguing that she established that the City had an official policy or custom which led to constitutional violations and her case was not sufficiently frivolous as to permit an award of costs. Malone v. City of Atlanta, Georgia, 21-12410 (11th Cir. Apr. 15, 2022).
In 2017, former Atlanta Police Officer Matthew Williams (“Williams”) pulled over Malone, a Lyft driver, and informed Malone that the license plate on the vehicle she was driving had been reported stolen. When Williams ran a check on Malone's driver's license, the search revealed that she had an outstanding warrant in Georgia for failure to appear. Malone denied the warrant existed; however, Williams placed Malone under arrest. Shortly thereafter, Malone began to show signs of medical distress. She was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital and then transferred to the Fulton County Jail. Her vehicle was impounded, and her personal property seized.
Atlanta Police Department's Office of Professional Standards (“OPS”) opened an investigation into the stop. OPS found inconsistencies in Williams's statements concerning what prompted him to stop Malone's vehicle based on when or even if Malone’s license plate was run. Additionally, Williams failed to detect the correct state identified on the tag. OPS recommended that Williams be dismissed and he voluntarily resigned. As part of her action, Malone submitted 25 complaints from citizens alleging similar instances of false arrest, unlawful traffic stops, and failure to provide timely and adequate medical assistance by other APD officers between 2011 and 2018. She asserted that those complaints established that APD had an official policy or custom of deploying untrained police officers.
The district court found – and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed – that the 25 complaints brought forward by Malone were not sufficient to establish that APD had a policy or custom of undertraining its officers for purposes of § 1983 liability. Other than identifying 25 complaints, Malone did not explain why the City's training policies were inadequate. Rather, even viewed in the light most-favorable to Malone, the 25 incidents reflected isolated acts over an eight-year period by individual officers, which says little about the training program or the legal basis for holding the City liable. Moreover, Malone could not produce any evidence which showed the City was “deliberately indifferent” or any information about what course of action the City took after receiving the complaints, generally. This case is instructive with respect to responding to evidence that purports to show “trends;” rattling of multiple isolated, unrelated complaints is insufficient to create liability under § 1983. There must still be a policy or custom in the form of an affirmative action or deliberate omission to create liability for the employer of a governmental employee/agent.