United States Supreme Court (March 29, 2011)

A district attorney's office may not be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failure to train its prosecutors based on a single violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).

In 1985, Thompson was charged with murder. The murder's publicity prompted victims of an unrelated armed robbery to identify Thompson as their attacker. Thompson was charged and convicted of attempted armed robbery. Due to the conviction, Thompson elected not to testify in his own defense at the subsequent murder trial, and he again was convicted. Thompson was imprisoned for 18 years, including 14 years on death row. One month prior to his scheduled execution, defense investigators discovered undisclosed evidence (blood evidence and a crime lab report) from his armed robbery trial. A court vacated both convictions, and Thompson was found not guilty in a retrial on the murder charge.

Thompson filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a Brady violation for failure to disclose the crime lab report. Thompson pursued two theories of liability: (1) the Brady violation was caused by an unconstitutional policy of the DA's office; and (2) the violation was caused by Connick's "deliberate indifference to an obvious need to train" his prosecutors in order to avoid such constitutional violations. The district court held that, to prove deliberate indifference, Thompson did not need to show a pattern of similar Brady violations when he could demonstrate that the need for training was obvious. The jury found the DA's office liable for the failure to train, and it awarded Thompson $14 million in damages. The Fifth Circuit affirmed by an evenly divided court. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide the narrow issue of whether a district attorney's office may be held liable under § 1983 for failure to train based on a single Brady violation.
Connick conceded that, in prosecuting Thompson for the armed robbery, one or more of the four prosecutors involved had violated Brady by failing to disclose the crime lab report. To succeed in his "failure-to-train" argument, Thompson had the burden to prove two theories: "(1) that Connick, the policymaker for the district attorney's office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train prosecutors about their Brady disclosure obligation with respect to evidence of this type and (2) that the lack of training actually caused the Brady violation in this case. "

42 U.S.C. § 1983, in pertinent part
"Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State…subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress…."

42 U.S.C. § 1983, analysis
Under § 1983, policymakers are responsible for their own acts, but they are not vicariously liable for their employees' actions. Culpability for a "policy of inadequate training," or for a "failure to train," must amount to a "deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact." Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989). The strict standard of "deliberate indifference" requires proof that the policymaker "disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action." Board of Comm'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 410 (1997). To demonstrate "deliberate indifference" relative to a failure-to-train argument, it is "ordinarily necessary" to prove a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees. Id. at 409.

Rather than demonstrate a pattern of similar Brady violations, Thompson argued that his case involved more than a "single incident" because up to four prosecutors may have failed to disclose the crime lab report. The Court, however, noted that contemporaneous conduct cannot demonstrate a pattern that would have put Connick on notice. Furthermore, the Court determined that the failure to train prosecutors of their Brady obligations does not fit the narrow circumstances that justify single-incident liability.
Connick argued that, as a matter of law, he was entitled to judgment because Thompson failed to prove that Connick had actual or constructive notice of a need for Brady training. The Court agreed with Connick, and concluded that Thompson failed to prove deliberate indifference. As such, the Court noted that it did not need to consider causation - whether the alleged training defect "actually caused" the failure to disclose the crime lab report.

The Court stated that the lower court and the Fifth Circuit erroneously found that Thompson had proved deliberate indifference by demonstrating the "obviousness" of a need for additional training. The Court indicated that "Thompson had to show that it was so predictable that failing to train the prosecutors amounted to a conscious disregard for defendants' Brady rights." The Court found that Thompson failed to do so, and therefore, the lower court should have granted Connick judgment as a matter of law. The Court reversed the Fifth Circuit's judgment.

The Dissent
Four justices filed a dissenting opinion, commenting that "a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney's Office." "What happened here, the Court's opinion obscures, was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer's misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that the misperception and disregard of Brady's disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish. That evidence, I would hold, established persistent, deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney's Office bears responsibility under § 1983."