City Not Liable For City Manager’s Violation Of City Policy In Firing Chief

The firing of former Dallas, Texas Police Chief Terrell Bolton has led to an interesting result in Bolton’s federal court lawsuit challenging his termination. In the Dallas scheme of government, appointment to the executive rank of Chief of Police is made at the discretion of the City Manager. During Bolton’s tenure, the City Manager was Teodoro Benavides. Before his appointment as Chief, Bolton had held the executive rank positions of assistant chief for eight years, deputy chief for three years, manager of building security for approximately one year (a civilian position), and, before that, the Civil Service rank of sergeant.

In August 2003, Benavides determined that Bolton was unfit for the position of Chief, and advised him that he had been terminated. Bolton was not reassigned to a lower rank within the Department. In a letter, Benavides listed a “series of issues” that caused him to determine that “new leadership for the Department was needed.”

The Dallas City Charter vested with Benavides the final powers to the employment of the Police Chief. The Charter also specifies that if a police chief is terminated “not for any cause justifying dismissal from the service,” the Chief “shall be restored to the rank and grade held prior to appointment to the position, or reduced to a lower appointive rank.”

Bolton sued the City, alleging that his due process rights were violated by Benavides’ failure to reduce him in rank as opposed to discharging him. After a series of lower court decisions and appeals, the eventual issue that was framed for a federal trial court was whether the City was liable for Benavides’ breach of the City Charter with respect to the termination of Bolton.

The Court started with the proposition that although municipalities are “persons” under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, they cannot be held liable simply on the theory of respondeat superior. Rather, a municipality’s liability only exists “when execution of the government’s policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury.”

As the Court described it, “it is well established that a single decision by an official can be grounds for Section 1983 liability where the decision was rendered by an individual with final policymaking authority. Where liability is based upon a single decision by an official, the Court’s task is to identify those officials or governmental bodies who speak with final policymaking authority for the local governmental actor concerning the action alleged to have caused the particular constitutional or statutory violation.”

In Bolton’s case, no one disputed that Benavides’ decision was an isolated incident insufficient to constitute an “official policy” by the City. Bolton argued, though, that Benavides possessed final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to his decision to terminate rather than reassign Bolton.

The Court ultimately disagreed with Bolton. The Court concluded that while “it is undisputed that Benavides had complete discretion to remove Bolton from the position of Chief of Police, the City Charter does not vest in Benavides any discretion regarding whether, after removing the Chief of Police from that position, he should be restored to a prior or lower appointive rank within the Department. The Charter explicitly provides that “the Chief or the assistant shall be restored to the rank and grade held prior to appointment to the position, or reduced to a lower appointive rank.

“In tasking the City Manager with the appointment and removal of all heads of departments, the City Charter did not give Benavides any final policymaking authority regarding what happened to these heads of departments when another Charter provision mandated their continued employment. The Court therefore concludes that Benavides’ failure to follow the Charter was an unauthorized departure from City policy and, as such was not an exercise by Benavides of final policymaking authority. The City cannot be held liable for Benavides’ failure to restore Bolton to the rank and grade he held prior to his appointment to the position of Chief of Police.”

Bolton v. City of Dallas, Texas, 2007 WL 2381253 (N.D.Tex. 2007).

This article appears in the October 2007 issue