436 U.S. 658 (1978), argued 2 Nov. 1977, decided 6 June 1978 by vote of 7 to 2; Brennan for the Court, Powell and Stevens concurring, Rehnquist, joined by Burger, in dissent. In Monell, the Court held that New York City's policy of requiring pregnant female city employees to take leave that was not medically necessary subjected the city to liability. It overruled the Court's seventeen-year-old holding, in Monroe v. Pape (1961), that local governments were wholly immune from suit under Title 42, section 1983 of the U.S. Code. Monell enabled civil rights plaintiffs to seek monetary recovery from local governments for constitutional violations.
While overruling Monroe, the Court limited the circumstances under which local governments are liable. It rejected imposing municipal liability simply because the municipality employed the person who violated the plaintiff's rights, so-called respondeat superior liability. Municipal liability instead depended on finding that the wrong resulted from the “official policy” of the municipality. The “official policy” test, as developed in later cases, requires that the wrongful policy be one made by someone in final policymaking authority. Mere egregious misbehavior by the police, for example, will not support municipal liability.
The Court's reasoning in rejecting respondeat superior liability is questionable in light of that doctrine's widespread acceptance in tort law. It relied on congressional rejection of proposed amendments to section 1983 that would have made cities liable for wrongful acts by private persons. The proposed amendments did not, however, address the question of whether cities might be liable for their own employees’ wrongful acts.