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  • December 6, 2013

Section 1983 Claim

Section 1983 Claim

150 150 Gregory A. Hall

Section 1983 claim by female who was raped by a Grand Junction police office was dismissed by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Schneider v. City of Grand Junction.  In ruling against Misti Lee Schneider, the Tenth Circuit found that she could not show that the police department caused her rape or that it was deliberately indifferent to the risk that she would be raped, even though the Police Department knew that Officer Glenn Coyle had improper sexual contact with another female before he raped Schneider.  The Schneider case is one illustration of how difficult civil rights claims are to prove.


On September 27, 2009, Officer Glenn Coyne of the Grand Junction, Colorado, Police Department (“GJPD”) responded to Misti Lee Schneider’s 911 call about an altercation with her teenage son, who was making and detonating bombs and recording the explosions on his cell phone. The next day, Officer Coyne called Ms. Schneider with some questions for his investigation. He signed off-duty at 11:49 p.m. and went to Ms. Schneider’s house. During that visit late that night, Officer Coyne raped Misti Schneider. Officer Coyne was arrested and his employment with GJPD was terminated. He was released on bond and within days he committed suicide.

The attack on Ms. Schneider was the third incident in which Officer Coyne was alleged to have had improper sexual contact with a woman whom he met while working in law enforcement. One complaint was known to GJPD before the attack on Ms. Schneider, but the other was not. A.L. complained that on January 8, 2007, Officer Coyne sexually abused her during a nighttime drug raid at her house. V.W. complained on December 28, 2008, but Officer Coyne said he had consensual sex with V.W., and V.W.’s report was unreliable.

Ms. Schneider sued Officer Coyne’s supervisors and the GJPD under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violation of her substantive due process right to bodily integrity. She alleged that inadequate hiring and training of Officer Coyne, inadequate investigation of a prior sexual assault complaint against him, and inadequate discipline and supervision of him caused her to be raped.

In district court, the defendants did not contest Ms. Schneider’s allegations about Officer Coyne’s conduct. They moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Officer Coyne did not act under color of state law and that Ms. Schneider could not prove, as § 1983 law requires, that they caused the rape or were deliberately indifferent to the risk that it would happen.

The district court denied summary judgment on the first ground, but granted summary judgment on the second ground, concluding that Ms. Schneider could not prove essential facts to establish § 1983 liability. She appealed that ruling.  In affirming the district court’s decision, the Tenth Circuit set forth the legal standards for imposing liability under a Section 1983 claim and explained why the plaintiff’s claim failed:


a. Individual Liability

The three elements required to establish a successful § 1983 claim against a defendant based on his or her supervisory responsibilities are: (1) personal involvement; (2) causation, and (3) state of mind.

1. Personal Involvement – The district court’s summary judgment conclusions were based on the second and third elements. The Tenth Circuit therefore assumed without deciding that Ms. Schneider presented sufficient evidence of the individual defendants’ personal involvement.

2. Causation – “A plaintiff [must] establish the ‘requisite causal connection’ by showing ‘the defendant set in motion a series of events that the defendant knew or reasonably should have known would cause others to deprive the plaintiff of her constitutional rights.” Dodds v. Richardson, 614 F.3d 1185, 1195 (10th Cir. 2010).

3. State of Mind – Ms. Schneider asserted a violation of her right to bodily integrity, which is a substantive-due-process claim. See Abeyta ex rel. Martinez v. Chama Valley Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 19, 77 F.3d 1253, 1255 (10th Cir. 1996). In the district court, the parties agreed that the applicable state of mind for a substantive due process claim is deliberate indifference.  “‘[D]eliberate indifference’ is a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.” Bd. Of Cnty. Comm’rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 410 (1997). Deliberate indifference can be satisfied by evidence showing that the defendant “knowingly created a substantial risk of constitutional injury.” Dodds, 614 F.3d at 1206. “

b. Municipal Liability

In order to establish municipal liability, Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 691-92, 694 (1978), held that a plaintiff must identify “a government’s policy or custom” that caused the injury. In later cases, the Supreme Court required a plaintiff to show that the policy was enacted or maintained with deliberate indifference to an almost inevitable constitutional injury. See City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 389 (1989).


a. Hiring

i. Individual Defendants

Ms. Schneider asserted that Officer Coyne would not have been hired had there been an adequate background investigation into the previous complaints against him.  In Brown, the Supreme Court discussed the standards for evaluating whether a policymaker’s hiring decision reflects deliberate indifference:

A plaintiff must demonstrate that a municipal decision reflects deliberate indifference to the risk that a violation of a particular constitutional or statutory right will follow the decision. Only where adequate scrutiny of an applicant’s background would lead a reasonable policymaker to conclude that the plainly obvious consequence of the decision to hire the applicant would be the deprivation of a third party’s federally protected right can the official’s failure to adequately scrutinize the applicant’s background constitute “deliberate indifference.”

In Schneider, the Tenth Circuit concluded the record did not support a finding that the background investigation of Officer Coyne was inadequate.

ii. The City

The Supreme Court has emphasized:

Cases involving constitutional injuries allegedly traceable to an ill-considered hiring decision pose the greatest risk that a municipality will be held liable for an injury that it did not cause. In the broadest sense, every injury is traceable to a hiring decision. Where a court fails to adhere to rigorous requirements of culpability and causation, municipal liability collapses into respondeat superior liability.  Brown, 520 U.S. at 415.

In Schneider, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that no reasonable jury could find that the City acted with deliberate indifference in its decision to hire Officer Coyne.

b. Training Claim Against the City

“[T]here are limited circumstances in which an allegation of a ‘failure to train’ can be the basis for [municipal] liability under § 1983.” City of Canton, 489 U.S. at 387. “[T]he inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for § 1983 liability only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact.” Id. at 388. Ms. Schneider failed to show that “the need for more or different training [was] so obvious” that a violation of her constitutional right to bodily integrity was likely to result from not providing it.

c. Investigation of V.W. Complaint

The Tenth Circuit again agreed with the district court that a rational jury could not find that the individual defendants acted with deliberate indifference in their investigation of a prior complaints against Officer Coyne.

d. Discipline

i. Individual Defendants

The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that the decision to discipline and not terminate Officer Coyne based on the previous complaint did not reflect deliberate indifference.  Chief Gardner took the V.W. complaint seriously. He disciplined Officer Coyne with a pay cut and probation, and the resulting notice of discipline told Officer Coyne that his conduct was unacceptable.

ii. The City

The discipline claim against the City is based on the Chief’s disciplinary decision. Rarely if ever is “the failure of a police department to discipline in a specific instance . . . an adequate basis for municipal liability under Monell.” Butler v. City of Norman, 992 F.2d 1053, 1056 (10th Cir. 1993).

e. Supervision

Ms. Schneider objected to GJPD’s policy that Internal Affairs Investigations be kept confidential, and an unwritten custom at GJPD of not holding a Staff Review in matters involving sexual misconduct. Consistent with this practice, a Staff Review was not convened following the investigation of the V.W. complaint. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the defendants for lack of sufficient evidence of causation

i. Individual Defendants

To prevail, Ms. Schneider had show that the policy and custom set into motion a series of events that the individual defendants knew or should have known would result in Officer Coyne committing an intentional, criminal assault. The Tenth Circuit could not say that lack of knowledge of the specific details of the V.W. complaint set in motion a series of events that caused the constitutional violation. To establish this, Ms. Schneider would need to show that if the relevant details had been known, specific actions would have been taken that would have prevented Officer Coyne’s attack. The Court held she had not provided such evidence.

ii. The City

As with the individual defendants, to proceed against the City, Ms. Schneider must present sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to causation. See Monell, 436 U.S. at 692.  For the same reasons discussed above, Ms. Schneider failed to satisfy her burden.

If you have evidence that your civil rights have been violated by an individual acting under color of law, contact Denver Civil Rights Attorney Gregory Hall:

Gregory A. Hall
Denver Civil Rights Attorney
3570 E. 12 Avenue, Suite 200
Denver, CO 80206
Ph. 303-320-0584

1 comment
  • Jason Flores-Williams October 8, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    We’re working on a homeless class action case here in Denver. We’ve been immersed, if not drowning, in the murky waters of 42 usc 1983 and municipal liability. Have read numerous law review articles, parsed cases…your blog here is the clearest articulation of the standard that we’ve read.

    Thank you.


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