Respondent Ronald Heller sued petitioners, city of Los Angeles and individual members of the Los Angeles Police Commission, and two Los Angeles police officers in the United States District Court for the Central District of California under the provisions of 42 U. S. C. § 1983. He claimed damages by reason of having been arrested without probable cause and having been the victim of excessive force in the making of the arrest. The incident arose as a result of the two Los Angeles police officers stopping him because of a suspicion that he was driving while intoxicated. In the words of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit:
The District Court held a bifurcated trial, and first heard respondent's claims against one of the individual police officers.
Respondent appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and that court reversed the judgment of the District Court dismissing respondent's case against petitioners even though it did not disturb the verdict for the defendant police officer. Respondent urged, and the Court of Appeals apparently agreed, that "the jury could have believed that Bushey, having followed Police Department regulations, was entitled in substance to a defense of good faith. Such a belief would not negate the existence of a constitutional injury" (footnote omitted). 759 F. 2d, at 1373-1374.
The difficulty with this position is that the jury was not charged on any affirmative defense such as good faith which might have been availed of by the individual police officer. Respondent contends in his brief in opposition to certiorari that even though no issue of qualified immunity was presented to the jury, the jury might nonetheless have considered evidence which would have supported a finding of such immunity. But the theory under which jury instructions are given by trial courts and reviewed on appeal is that juries act in accordance with the instructions given them, see Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 472 U.S. 585, 604 (1985), and that they do not consider and base their decisions on legal questions with respect to which they are not charged. We think that the Court of Appeals' search for ambiguity in the verdict was unavailing; as that court itself noted later in its opinion, "[b]ecause the instructions required a verdict for [respondent] if either the due process or the excessive force claim was found, the jury's
The Court of Appeals also stated:
But this was an action for damages, and neither Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), nor any other of our cases authorizes the award of damages against a municipal corporation based on the actions of one of its officers when in fact the jury has concluded that the officer inflicted no constitutional harm. If a person has suffered no constitutional injury at the hands of the individual police officer, the fact that the departmental regulations might have authorized the use of constitutionally excessive force is quite beside the point.
The petition for certiorari is granted, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE MARSHALL dissents from this summary disposition, which has been ordered without affording the parties prior notice or an opportunity to file briefs on the merits. See Cuyahoga Valley R. Co. v. Transportation Union, 474 U.S. 3, 8 (1985) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting); Maggio v. Fulford, 462 U.S. 111, 120-121 (1983) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting).
JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL joins, dissenting.
Whenever the Court decides a case without the benefit of briefs or argument on the merits, there is a danger that it will issue an opinion without the careful deliberation and explication that the issues require. Today's "per curiam" opinion is a fair illustration of the problem. The two important issues presented in this case are not even identified in that document. The District Court's decision to dismiss the action against the city, the Police Department, and the Police Commissioners necessarily rested on two assumptions: (1) there was an inherent inconsistency between the jury verdict in favor of Officer Bushey and a possible verdict against the municipal defendants and (2) that inconsistency required the dismissal of the action against the municipal defendants. Far from specifically addressing those issues, however, the District Court dismissed the action against the city on the ground that it had "become moot."
The first necessary assumption is that there would be an inevitable inconsistency between the jury verdict of no liability for Officer Bushey and a possible verdict of liability against the municipal entities; in the absence of such an inconsistency, the District Court's decision, and this Court's reinstatement of it, are simply inexplicable.
It is undisputed that Ronald Heller crashed through a plate-glass window after some kind of an altercation with Officer Bushey. He had been stopped on suspicion of driving while intoxicated and given sobriety tests.
On the day before trial, the District Judge bifurcated the trial into two phases — the first against Officer Bushey and the second against the municipal entities. The record contains no explanation for this decision, but it does reveal that Heller's counsel opposed bifurcation.
In submitting the claim against Officer Bushey to the jury, the trial judge gave an instruction that simply stated that whether or not the force used in making an arrest in unreasonable "is an issue to be determined in the light of all the surrounding circumstances."
Thus, despite the majority's summary assertion to the contrary, it is perfectly obvious that the general verdict rejecting the excessive force claim against Officer Bushey did not necessarily determine the constitutionality of the city's "escalating force" policy — a subject on which the jury had received no instructions at all. The verdict merely determined that the officer's action was not unreasonable "in the light of all the surrounding circumstances" — which, of course, included the evidence that Officer Bushey was merely obeying orders and following established Police Department policy.
As a result, there was no necessary inconsistency between the verdict for Officer Bushey and a possible verdict of liability
In view of the fact that the Court of Appeals correctly concluded that there was no necessary inconsistency between a verdict exonerating Officer Bushey and a verdict holding the city and Police Department liable for the "escalating force" policy, it did not have to consider the appropriate response to a possible inconsistency in the context of a bifurcated trial.
Inconsistent verdicts are, of course, a familiar phenomenon. In a criminal case, a jury's apparently inconsistent verdict is allowed to stand.
If the Court's unprecedented, ill-considered, and far-reaching decision happens to be correct, defendants as a class have been presented with a tactical weapon of great value. By persuading trial judges to bifurcate trials in which both the principal and its agents are named as defendants, and to require the jury to bring in its verdict on the individual claim first, they may obtain the benefit of whatever intangible factors have prompted juries to bring in a multitude of inconsistent verdicts in past years; defendants will no longer have to abide the mechanisms that courts have used to mitigate
The Court today reverses an interlocutory decision in a constitutional rights case on the basis of assumptions that dramatically conflict with the record and with settled legal principles. The Court mistakenly assumes that there was a necessary inconsistency between the verdict of no liability against the individual officer and a possible verdict against the municipal defendants; it then mistakenly assumes that dismissal was an appropriate response to the perceived inconsistency. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Court achieves these results without the aid of briefs or argument, and relies on an anonymous author to explain what it has done.
I respectfully dissent.
"The jury, in substance, was instructed that Heller was deprived of liberty without due process if he was arrested without reasonable cause. The jurors were further instructed that Heller's constitutional rights were violated if he was arrested with "unreasonable force" that exceeded the force necessary under the circumstances to effect arrest. The jury's verdict for the defendant therefore embodies a finding that Heller was arrested for reasonable cause and that the amount of force used was not unreasonable or excessive. The difficulty is that the conclusion that the force was reasonable could have been derived either from Police Department regulations, which incorporate a theory of `escalating force,' or from a constitutional standard entirely independent of such regulations. We cannot say which with assurance." Heller v. Bushey, 759 F.2d 1371, 1374 (CA9 1985) (footnote omitted).