Collins v. City of Harker Heights

Collins v. City of Harker Heights  (1992) 
Court Documents

Supreme Court of the United States

503 U.S. 115

Collins  v.  City of Harker Heights, Texas

Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

No. 90-1279  Argued: November 5, 1991 --- Decided: February 26, 1992

Larry Collins, an employee in respondent city's sanitation department, died of asphyxia after entering a manhole to unstop a sewer line. Petitioner, his widow, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging, inter alia, that Collins had a right under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "to be free from unreasonable risks of be protected from the [city's] custom and policy of deliberate indifference toward [its employees'] safety"; that the city had violated that right by following a custom and policy of not training its employees about the dangers of working in sewers and not providing safety equipment and warnings; and that the city had systematically and intentionally failed to provide the equipment and training required by a Texas statute. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that it did not allege a constitutional violation. Without reaching the question whether the city had violated Collins' constitutional rights, the Court of Appeals affirmed on the theory that there had been no "abuse of governmental power," which the court found to be a necessary element of a §1983 action.

Held: Because a city's customary failure to train or warn its employees about known hazards in the workplace does not violate the Due Process Clause, §1983 does not provide a remedy for a municipal employee who is fatally injured in the course of his employment as a result of the city's failure. Pp. 119–130.

(a) This Court's cases do not support the Court of Appeals' reading of §1983 as requiring an abuse of governmental power separate and apart from the proof of a constitutional violation. Contrary to that court's analysis, neither the fact that Collins was a government employee nor the characterization of the city's deliberate indifference to his safety as something other than an "abuse of governmental power" is a sufficient reason for refusing to entertain petitioner's federal claim under §1983. Proper analysis requires that two issues be separated when a §1983 claim is asserted against a municipality: (1) whether plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation, and (2) if so, whether the city is responsible for that violation. Pp. 119–120.

(b) It is assumed for the purpose of decision that the complaint's use of the term "deliberate indifference" to characterize the city's failure to [p. 116] train its sanitation department employees is sufficient to hold the city responsible if the complaint has also alleged a constitutional violation. See Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378. Pp. 120–124.

(c) The complaint has not alleged a constitutional violation. Neither the Due Process Clause's text—which, inter alia, guarantees due process in connection with any deprivation of liberty by a State—nor its history supports petitioner’s unprecedented claim that the Clause imposes an independent substantive duty upon municipalities to provide certain minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace. Although the "process" that the Clause guarantees includes a continuing obligation to satisfy certain minimal custodial standards for those who have already been deprived of their liberty, petitioner cannot maintain that the city deprived Collins of his liberty when it made, and he voluntarily accepted, an employment offer. Also unpersuasive is petitioner's claim that the city's alleged failure to train its employees, or to warn them about known risks of harm, was an omission that can properly be characterized as arbitrary, or conscience shocking, in a constitutional sense. Petitioner's claim is analogous to a fairly typical tort claim under state law, which is not supplanted by the Due Process Clause, see, e. g., Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 332–333, particularly in the area of public employment, see, e. g., Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 350. In light of the presumption that the administration of government programs is based on a rational decisionmaking process that takes account of competing forces, decisions concerning the allocation of resources to individual programs, such as sewer maintenance, and to particular aspects of those programs, such as employee training, involve a host of policy choices that must be made by locally elected representatives, rather than by federal judges interpreting the country's basic charter of Government. For the same reasons, petitioner's suggestion that the Texas Hazard Communication Act supports her substantive due process claim is rejected. Pp. 125–130.

916 F.2d 284, affirmed.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Sanford Jay Rosen argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Don Busby and Andrea G. Asaro.

[p. 117] Lucas A. Powe, Jr., argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Roy L. Barrett and Stuart Smith.[1].


  1. . Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Edward Tuddenham, J. Patrick Wiseman, Steven R. Shapiro, John A. Powell, and Helen Hershkoff; for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America by Jeffrey L. Needle; and for the National Education Association by Robert H. Chanin and Jeremiah A. Collins.

Richard Ruda, Carter G. Phillips, and Mark D. Hopson filed a brief for the National League of Cities et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).