In Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), this Court for the first time held that a local government was subject to suit as a "person" within the meaning of 42 U. S. C. § 1983. Aside from concluding that a municipal body was not wholly immune from civil liability, the Court had no occasion to explore the nature or scope of any particular municipal immunity under the statute. 436 U. S., at 701. The question presented by this case is whether a municipality may be held liable for punitive damages under § 1983.
Respondent Fact Concerts, Inc., is a Rhode Island corporation organized for the purpose of promoting musical concerts.
Respondent engaged a number of well-known jazz music acts to perform during the final August concerts. Shortly before the dates specified, the group Blood, Sweat and Tears was hired as a replacement for a previously engaged performer who was unable to appear. Members of the Newport City Council, including the Mayor, became concerned that Blood, Sweat and Tears, which they characterized as a rock group rather than as a jazz band, would attract a rowdy and undesirable audience to Newport. 2 Record Appendix (R. A.) 265, 316-317, 325.
On Monday, August 25, Mayor Donnelly informed respondent by telephone that he considered Blood, Sweat and Tears to be a rock group, and that they would not be permitted to perform because the city had experienced crowd disturbances at previous rock concerts. Id., at 195. Officials of respondent appeared before the City Council at a special meeting the next day, and explained that Blood, Sweat and Tears in fact were a jazz band that had performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City and at similar symphony hall facilities
Later in the same week, respondent was informed by the City Solicitor that the Council had changed its position and would allow Blood, Sweat and Tears to perform if they did not play rock music. On Thursday, August 28, respondent agreed to attend a second special Council meeting the following day.
The second Council session convened on the afternoon of August 29, the day before the first scheduled performance. Mayor Donnelly informed the Council members that the city had two options—it could either allow Blood, Sweat and Tears to perform subject to the prohibition against rock music, or cancel the concert altogether. Although the City Solicitor advocated the first alternative and advised that cancellation would be unlawful, 3 R. A. 478, the Council did not offer the first option to respondent. Instead, one of the Council members inquired whether all provisions of the contract had been fulfilled. The City Manager, who had just returned from the concert site, reported that the wiring together of the spectator seats was not fully completed by 3 p.m., and that the auxiliary electric generator was not in place. Under the contract, respondent had agreed to fulfill these two conditions as part of the overall safety procedures. App. 28.
On Saturday morning, August 30, respondent obtained in state court a restraining order enjoining the Mayor, the City Council, and the city from interfering with the performance of the concerts. The 2-day event, including the appearance of Blood, Sweat and Tears, took place without incident. Fewer than half the available tickets were sold.
Respondent instituted the present action in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, naming the city, its Mayor, and the six other Council members as defendants. Alleging, inter alia, that the license cancellation amounted to content-based censorship, and that its constitutional rights to free expression and due process had been violated under color of state law, respondent sought compensatory and punitive damages against the city and its officials under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 and under two pendent state-law counts, including tortious interference with contractual relationships. App. 8. At the conclusion of six days of trial, the District Court charged the jury with respect to the § 1983 and tortious interference counts. Included in its charge was
Petitioner moved for a new trial, arguing that punitive damages cannot be awarded under § 1983 against a municipality, and that even if they can, the award was excessive.
The District Court recognized, ibid., that Monell had left undecided the question whether municipalities may be held liable for punitive damages. 436 U. S., at 701. The court observed, however, that punitive damages often had been awarded against individual officials in § 1983 actions, and it found no clear basis for distinguishing between individuals and municipalities in this regard. Emphasizing the general deterrent purpose served by punitive damages awards, the court reasoned that a municipality's payment of such an award would focus taxpayer and voter attention upon the entity's malicious conduct, and that this in turn might promote accountability at the next election. App. to Pet. for Cert. B-9. Although noting that the burden imposed upon tax-paying citizens warranted judicial caution in this area, the court concluded that in appropriate circumstances municipalities could be held liable for punitive damages in a § 1983 action.
The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed. 626 F.2d 1060 (1980). That court noted, as an initial matter, that the challenge to the punitive damages award was flawed due to petitioner's failure to object to the charge at trial. The court observed that such a failure should be overlooked "only where the error is plain and `has seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public reputation of a judicial proceeding.'" Id., at 1067. The court found none of these factors present, because the law concerning municipal liability under § 1983 was in a state of flux, and no appellate decision had barred punitive damages awards against a municipality.
The Court of Appeals also expressed a belief that the
Because of the importance of the issue, we granted certiorari. 449 U.S. 1060 (1980).
At the outset, respondent asserts that the punitive damages issue was not properly preserved for review before this Court. Brief for Respondents 7-9. In light of Rule 51's uncompromising language
Nor are we persuaded that our review should be limited to determining whether "plain error" has been committed, an exception to Rule 51 that is invoked on occasion by the Courts of Appeals absent timely objection in the trial court.
"Plain error" review under Rule 51 is suited to correcting obvious instances of injustice or misapplied law. A court's interpretation of the contours of municipal liability under § 1983, as both courts below recognized, hardly could give rise to plain judicial error since those contours are currently in a state of evolving definition and uncertainty. See Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622 (1980); Monell. See
In addition to being novel, the punitive damages question is important and appears likely to recur in § 1983 litigation against municipalities.
It is by now well settled that the tort liability created by § 1983 cannot be understood in a historical vacuum. In the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Congress created a federal remedy against a person who, acting under color of state law, deprives another of constitutional rights. See Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 172 (1961). Congress, however, expressed no intention to do away with the immunities afforded state officials at common law, and the Court consistently has declined to construe the general language of § 1983
At the same time, the Court's willingness to recognize certain traditional immunities as affirmative defenses has not led it to conclude that Congress incorporated all immunities existing
Since Monell was decided three years ago, the Court has applied this two-part approach when scrutinizing a claim of immunity proffered by a municipality. In Owen v. City of Independence, the Court held that neither history nor policy supported a construction of § 1983 that would allow a municipality to assert the good faith of its officers or agents as a defense to liability for damages. 445 U. S., at 638, 657. Owen, however, concerned only compensatory damages, and petitioner contends that with respect to a municipality's liability for punitive damages, an examination of the common-law background and policy considerations yields a very different result.
By the time Congress enacted what is now § 1983, the immunity of a municipal corporation from punitive damages at common law was not open to serious question. It was generally understood by 1871 that a municipality, like a private corporation, was to be treated as a natural person subject to suit for a wide range of tortious activity,
The language of the opinions themselves is instructive as to the reasons behind this common-law tradition. In McGary, for example, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to allow punitive damages against the city of Lafayette despite the malicious acts of its municipal officers, who had violated an injunction by ordering the demolition of plaintiff's house. Reasoning that the officials' malice should not be attributed to the taxpaying citizens of the community, the court explained its holding:
Similarly, in Hunt v. City of Boonville, 65 Mo. 620 (1877), the Missouri Supreme Court held that a municipality could not be found liable for treble damages under a trespass statute, notwithstanding the statute's authorization of such damages against "any person." After noting the existence of "respectable authority" to the effect that municipal corporations "can not, as such, do a criminal act or a willful and malicious wrong and they cannot therefore be made liable for exemplary damages," id., at 624, the court continued:
Of particular relevance to our current inquiry is Order of Hermits of St. Augustine v. County of Philadelphia, supra, which involved a Pennsylvania statute that authorized property owners within the county to bring damages actions against it for the destruction of their property by mob violence.
The rationale of these decisions was reiterated in numerous other common-law jurisdictions. E. g., Wilson v. City of Wheeling, 19 W.Va. 323, 350 (1882) ("The city is not a spoliator and should not be visited by vindictive or punitive damages"); City of Chicago v. Langlass, 52 Ill., at 259 ("But in fixing the compensation the jury have no right to give vindictive or punitive damages, against a municipal corporation. Against such a body they should only be compensatory, and not by way of punishment"); City Council of Montgomery v. Gilmer & Taylor, 33 Ala., at 132 ("The [municipal] corporation can not, upon any principle known
Given that municipal immunity from punitive damages was well established at common law by 1871, we proceed on the familiar assumption that "Congress would have specifically so provided had it wished to abolish the doctrine." Pierson v. Ray, 386 U. S., at 555. Nothing in the legislative debates suggests that, in enacting § 1 of the Civil Rights Act,
Because there was virtually no debate on § 1 of the Act, the Court has looked to Congress' treatment of the amendment to the Act introduced by Senator Sherman as indicative of congressional attitudes toward the nature and scope of municipal liability. Monell, 436 U. S., at 692, n. 57.
We doubt that a Congress having no intention of permitting punitive awards against municipalities in the explicit context of the Sherman amendment would have meant to expose municipal bodies to such novel liability sub silentio under § 1 of the Act.
Notwithstanding the compensatory focus of the amendment, its proposed extension of municipal liability met substantial resistance in Congress, resulting in its defeat on two separate occasions.
Finding no evidence that Congress intended to disturb the settled common-law immunity, we now must determine whether considerations of public policy dictate a contrary result. In doing so, we examine the objectives underlying punitive damages in general, and their relationship to the goals of § 1983.
Punitive damages by definition are not intended to compensate the injured party, but rather to punish the tortfeasor
Under ordinary principles of retribution, it is the wrongdoer himself who is made to suffer for his unlawful conduct. If a government official acts knowingly and maliciously to deprive others of their civil rights, he may become the appropriate object of the community's vindictive sentiments. See generally Silver v. Cormier, 529 F.2d 161, 163 (CA10 1976); Bucher v. Krause, 200 F.2d 576, 586-588 (CA7 1952), cert. denied, 345 U.S. 997 (1953). A municipality, however, can have no malice independent of the malice of its officials. Damages awarded for punitive purposes, therefore, are not sensibly assessed against the governmental entity itself.
To the extent that the purposes of § 1983 have any bearing on this punitive rationale, they do not alter our analysis. The Court previously has indicated that punitive damages
The other major objective of punitive damages awards is to prevent future misconduct. Respondent argues vigorously that deterrence is a primary purpose of § 1983, and that because punitive awards against municipalities for the malicious conduct of their policymaking officials will induce voters to condemn official misconduct through the electoral process, the threat of such awards will deter future constitutional violations. Brief for Respondents 9-11. Respondent is correct in asserting that the deterrence of future abuses of power by persons acting under color of state law is an important purpose of § 1983. Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U. S., at 651; Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U. S., at 591. It is in this context that the Court's prior statements contemplating punitive damages "in `a proper' § 1983 action" should be understood. Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14, 22 (1980); Carey v. Piphus, 435 U. S., at 257, n. 11. For several reasons, however, we conclude that the deterrence rationale of § 1983 does not justify making punitive damages available against municipalities.
First, it is far from clear that municipal officials, including those at the policymaking level, would be deterred from wrongdoing by the knowledge that large punitive awards could be assessed based on the wealth of their municipality. Indemnification may not be available to the municipality under local law, and even if it were, officials likely will not be able themselves to pay such sizable awards. Thus, assuming,
There also is no reason to suppose that corrective action, such as the discharge of offending officials who were appointed and the public excoriation of those who were elected, will not occur unless punitive damages are awarded against the municipality. The Court recently observed in a related context: "The more reasonable assumption is that responsible superiors are motivated not only by concern for the public fisc but also by concern for the Government's integrity." Carlson v. Green, 446 U. S., at 21. This assumption is no less applicable to the electorate at large. And if additional protection is needed, the compensatory damages that are available against a municipality may themselves induce the public to vote the wrongdoers out of office.
Moreover, there is available a more effective means of deterrence. By allowing juries and courts to assess punitive damages in appropriate circumstances against the offending official, based on his personal financial resources, the statute directly advances the public's interest in preventing repeated constitutional deprivations.
Finally, although the benefits associated with awarding punitive damages against municipalities under § 1983 are of doubtful character, the costs may be very real. In light of the Court's decision last Term in Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1 (1980), the § 1983 damages remedy may now be available for violations of federal statutory as well as constitutional law. But cf. Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Assn., ante, p. 1. Under this expanded liability, municipalities and other units of state and local government face the possibility of having to assure compensation for persons harmed by abuses of governmental authority covering a large range of activity in everyday life. To add the burden of exposure for the malicious conduct of individual government employees may create a serious risk to the financial integrity of these governmental entities.
The Court has remarked elsewhere on the broad discretion traditionally accorded to juries in assessing the amount of punitive damages. Electrical Workers v. Foust, 442 U.S. 42, 50-51 (1979); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 349-350 (1974). Because evidence of a tortfeasor's wealth is traditionally admissible as a measure of the amount of punitive damages that should be awarded,
In sum, we find that considerations of history and policy do not support exposing a municipality to punitive damages for the bad-faith actions of its officials. Because absolute immunity from such damages obtained at common law and was undisturbed by the 42d Congress, and because that immunity is compatible with both the purposes of § 1983 and general principles of public policy, we hold that a municipality is immune from punitive damages under 42 U. S. C. § 1983. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE STEVENS join, dissenting.
The Court today considers and decides a challenge to the District Court's jury instructions, even though petitioners failed to object to the instructions in a timely manner, as required by Rule 51 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Because this departure from Rule 51 is unprecedented and unwarranted, I respectfully dissent.
Respondents filed suit against petitioners in Federal District Court under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, alleging violations of their
Petitioners moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and for a new trial, arguing, inter alia, that punitive damages may not be imposed against a municipality under § 1983. The court denied the motion, stating:
Petitioners' failure to object to the punitive damages instruction
On appeal to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, the court stated that petitioners' allegation of error in the punitive damages instruction
The Court of Appeals then briefly canvassed the relevant precedents, stated that the law concerning punitive damages against municipalities under § 1983 is in a "state of flux," 626 F. 2d, at 1067, and concluded: "[W]e would be hard-pressed to say that the trial judge's punitive damages instruction was plain error. Nor is this a case containing such `peculiar circumstances [to warrant, noticing error] to prevent a clear miscarriage of justice.'" Id., at 1067-1068, quoting Nimrod v. Sylvester, 369 F.2d 870, 873 (CA1 1966) (citation omitted; brackets in original).
Respondents argue before this Court that the decision of the Court of Appeals should be affirmed, because petitioners failed to object to the punitive damages instruction.
Rule 51 could not be expressed more clearly. Cases too numerous to list have held that failure to object to proposed jury instructions in a timely manner in accordance with Rule 51 precludes appellate review.
Nevertheless, like other procedural rules, Rule 51 is susceptible to flexible interpretation when strictly necessary to
The Court states that the "problem with" respondents' argument that petitioners are barred from raising the punitive damages issue "is that the District Court in the first instance
The Court today frankly admits that the instruction was not plain error, noting that the governing principles of law are "currently in a state of evolving definition and uncertainty." Ante, at 256. Nevertheless, it vacates the Court of Appeals' judgment. Such a vacating necessarily implies that the Court of Appeals' treatment of the procedural question was in error, but the Court provides not a hint as to what standard the Court of Appeals should have applied.
The Court does assert that under the "special circumstances of this case" it would be "peculiarly inapt" to confine our review to the plain-error standard employed below. It explains that the issue in this case is "novel," and that it "appears likely to recur." Ante, at 256, 257. But most of the issues before this Court are novel and likely to recur: that is why they are considered worthy of certiorari. And to the extent issues are novel, it behooves us to grant certiorari in cases where there has been full consideration of the issues by the courts below, rather than cursory treatment under a plain-error standard.
The Court also suggests that this case is somehow "special" because the issue "was squarely presented and decided on a complete record by the court of first resort, was argued by both sides to the Court of Appeals, and has been fully briefed before this Court." Ante, at 257. But these factors are present whenever the District Court reconsiders unchallenged jury instructions on the merits as an alternative holding, the
Applying settled principles. I conclude that the Court of Appeals was correct to affirm the District Court in this case. The jury instruction, as the Court admits, did not constitute "plain error." Moreover, as the Court of Appeals held, failure to review the instruction would not cause a clear miscarriage of justice, any more than would failure to review any other unchallenged jury instruction. There is no reason to treat punitive damages instructions differently from other instructions for Rule 51 purposes. See Whiting v. Jackson State University, 616 F.2d 116, 126-127 (CA5 1980) (no timely objection having been made, court's failure to give punitive damages instruction upheld except in exceptional cases); Mid-America Food Service, Inc. v. ARA Services, Inc., 578 F.2d 691 (CA8 1978) (no timely objection having been made, punitive damages instruction upheld in absence of plain error). Nor is the city of Newport entitled to special treatment by virtue of its governmental status. Cf. Morris v. Travisono, 528 F. 2d, at 859 (failure of state correctional officers in § 1983 suit to object to jury instructions not excused, even though the instructions directed the jury to apply a harsher constitutional standard than had been established by precedent).
Indeed, I consider this a peculiarly inapt case to disregard petitioners' procedural default. There would be no injustice whatsoever in adhering to the Rule in this case. Petitioners were given clear notice that punitive damages would be an issue in the case; the jury instructions were unambiguous; petitioners had ample opportunity to object; they failed to do so, without offering any reason or excuse.
"No party may assign as error the giving or the failure to give an instruction unless he objects thereto before the jury retires to consider its verdict, stating distinctly the matter to which he objects and the grounds of his objection."
The Court thus relies on 19th-century case law for the proposition that municipalities may not be held liable for punitive damages, without distinguishing between the common situation in which municipal liability is predicated on a theory of respondent superior, and the more unusual situation in which the violation is committed in accordance with official governmental policy. See ante, at 259-263. Only in the latter situation have we held that a municipality may be sued under § 1983, Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690-691 (1978). It is in the latter context that the Court's cited precedent is least relevant, and that its concern for "blameless or unknowing taxpayers," ante, at 267, is least compelling. Indeed, when the elected representatives of the people adopt a municipal policy that violates the Constitution, it seems perfectly reasonable to impose punitive damages on those ultimately responsible for the policy—the citizens.
Similarly, certain procedural defaults in state and federal criminal trials preclude federal habeas relief in the absence of "cause" and "prejudice." See Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 90-91 (1977); Davis v. United States, 411 U.S. 233, 242-245 (1973). The Court's conclusion that petitioners' claim should be heard despite the absence of any claim of "cause" and "prejudice" thus suggests that the courts should be stricter in enforcing procedural rules against prisoners facing incarceration than against civil defendants facing money judgments. The Court's priorities seem backwards to me.