(CN) – The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against a California couple who said they were denied their constitutional right to have their names removed from the state’s child abuse database.
The high court unanimously reversed the 9th Circuit’s ruling for Craig and Wendy Humphries, who argued that Los Angeles County gave them no “fair opportunity” to challenge their inclusion in the database, known as the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI).
The couple’s child accused them of abuse, but the allegations were later disproved by a doctor. When the Humphries tried to get their names removed from the database, neither California nor Los Angeles County had procedures in place allowing the couple to challenge the report.
They sued the state attorney general, the county sheriff, two detectives in the sheriff’s department and the county for allegedly violating their due process rights.
The 9th Circuit sympathized with the Humphries, saying they were “living every parent’s nightmare.” Finding that the state had shirked its duty to give the couple “some kind of hearing,” the court awarded them $600,000 in attorney’s fees, $60,000 of which fell on the county.
Los Angeles County argued that, under the Supreme Court’s 1978 ruling in Monell v. NYC Department of Social Services, a municipality can only be held liable for damages if its “policy or custom” deprived someone of a federal right. The county pointed out that the alleged due-process violation stemmed from state policy, not county policy.
The Supreme Court agreed that the “policy or custom” standard applies to civil rights claims, no matter what type of relief the plaintiffs seek.
“To find the requirement inapplicable where prospective relief is at issue would undermine Monell‘s logic,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote. “For whether an action or omission is a municipality’s ‘own’ has to do with the nature of the action or omission, not with the nature of the relief that is later sought in court.”
Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision due to her work as the former U.S. solicitor general.