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Rape and Suicide Not Enough for 1983 Action Says 10th Cir.

By Betty Wang, JD | Last updated on

Despite the horrible events that happened to Plaintiff Misti Lee Schneider, the proof still was not enough to sustain a § 1983 action. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants earlier this month and said just that.

Plaintiff Schneider had made a 911 call about a serious altercation with her teenage son. Officer Glenn Coyce of the Grand Junction Police Department (GJPD) not only took her call, but raped her the next night. Coyne was arrested days later, and subsequently committed suicide.

Schneider fought to allege a § 1983 violation of her substantive due process rights on a few counts -- the relevant one being that the GJPD were deliberately indifferent to the risk that the rape would occur.

[A] local government policymaker is deliberately indifferent when he deliberately or consciously fails to act when presented with an obvious risk of constitutional harm which will almost inevitably result in constitutional injury of the type experienced by the plaintiff," said the court, citing Hollingsworth v. Hill

Unfortunately, Schneider fell short from proving deliberate indifference. The problem ultimately turned on the fact that Coyne was dead, and so he could not be prosecuted for his actions. So Schneider turned to the GJPD, his employers. While there was no denying that Coyne's actions were awful, and even while he had a rather checkered history of past, similar behavior, it really was in the end that § 1983 liability required a more obvious and direct connection when it came to municipal liability.

Here, it just couldn't be proven that Coyne's employers could be held liable because the courts did not see that there was a direct causal link between the municipal action and the deprivation of federal rights. Coyne had been put on probation in the past and the courts mostly found that the GJPD acted accordingly, and they also found that even had the GJPD sanctioned Coyne more, this ultimately would not have stopped what eventually happened.

Bottom line: municipal liability has very strict standards, and had Coyne been alive, this case would not have presented itself in the difficult way that it had.

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