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Duckworth v. Franzen

December 17, 1985


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, Alton Division. No. 80 C 5057 - William L. Beatty, Judge.

Author: Posner

Before BAUER, POSNER, and EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judges.

POSNER, Circuit Judge. In November 1979 a bus used to transport prisoners between Illinois prisons caught fire from unknown causes. When the fire broke out, the 35 prisoners in the bus were in handcuffs, with all the prisoners on each side of the aisle being joined together by a chain running through the handcuffs. For reasons of security all exits but the front door of the bus had been sealed and there was a metal screen (like a mesh fence), probably locked (but the record is not clear on this), between the passenger area and the front door. When the bus filled with dense smoke each group of prisoners tried to rise and make its way to the front exit, but only one prisoner (who had managed to slip out of his handcuffs) succeeded in getting out, and a guard thrust him back into the bus. Eventually guards equipped with gas masks cut through the chains and brought the prisoners out. One prisoner died from the ordeal. Others suffered serious, and in at least one case permanent, lung injury. Twenty-one of the injured prisoners brought suit against three prison officials and three guards under section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (now 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983), charging that by failing to take effective precautions against the consequences of a fire on the bus the defendants had visited cruel and unusual punishment on the plaintiffs in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which has been held applicable to the states under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The complaint included a pendent claim against these six defendants for negligence and a diversity claim based on products liability against a seventh defendant, the manufacturer of the bus.

The district judge severed the claim against the bus company, and it remains in the district court, awaiting trial. He dismissed the pendent claim. The civil rights claim was tried to a jury, which awarded damages totaling $561,000 (including punitive damages) against three of the defendants - Franzen, the head of the Illinois prison system at the time of the fire; Wolff, the then warden of Joliet prison, the distribution point for prisoners entering the Illinois prison system and the place where the bus was kept; and Hert, the then director of security at Joliet - but exonerated the three guards who had been in charge of the bus when the fire occurred. Although the judgment is not final in the sense of winding up the entire litigation - for the plaintiffs' claim against the bus company has yet to be tried - the judge quite properly has certified the judgment for an immediate appeal under Rule 54(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It disposes, with finality in the district court, of the claims against the other defendants, and they should not have to wait until the case against the bus company is concluded to get a definitive determination of their liability.

The three defendants who were found liable argue mainly that the plaintiffs' suit is barred by the Eleventh Amendment and that in any event no reasonable jury could have found them guilty of inflicting cruel and unusual punishment. The plaintiffs, cross-appealing from the dismissal of the pendent claim, argue that the district judge was wrong to think it barred by the Eleventh Amendment, especially when the judge thought the Eleventh Amendment no bar to the civil rights claim. Several of the plaintiffs also challenge the jury's award of damages to them, as too low.

The defendants say they were sued in their official capacities, making this a suit against the state. If you believe that a state officer has violated your constitutional rights, you have a choice between suing the officer personally and suing the state. If you go the former route you don't have to worry about the Eleventh Amendment but do have to worry about various personal defenses, such as good-faith immunity; if you go to the latter route you don't have to worry about personal defenses but may have to worry about the Eleventh Amendment. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 105 S. Ct. 3099, 3105-06, 87 L. Ed. 2d 114 (1985). A suit against an official in his official rather than individual capacity is a suit against the state. See id. at 3105; Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 105 S. Ct. 873, 878, 83 L. Ed. 2d 878 (1985).

The complaint named Franzen "in his capacity as Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections," but Wolff and Hert merely as "Former Warden of the Joliet Correctional Center" and "Former Chief of Security" at Joliet, respectively, and the three guards just as "Officers of the Illinois Department of Corrections." The same designations appear in the part of the complaint that asks for damages. All this might seem to clinch the case for regarding the suit against Franzen, at least, as an official-capacity suit and hence barred by the Eleventh Amendment; for section 1983 did not abrogate the states' Eleventh Amendment immunity from damage suite, Owen v. Lash, 682 F.2d 648, 654 (7th Cir. 1982), and Illinois has not waived that immunity. Although the Eleventh Amendment, read literally, forbids the federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over any suit by a citizen against a state, they may do so if the state consents, Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 782, 57 L. Ed. 2d 1114, 98 S. Ct. 3057 (1978) (per curiam) - a rare example of the conferral of subject-matter jurisdiction by consent.

Not only suing a defendant in his official capacity, but even just naming the defendant's office, raises a presumption that he is being sued only in his official capacity. See, e.g., Kolar v. County of Sangamon, 756 F.2d 564, 568-69 (7th Cir. 1985); Wolf-Lillie v. Sonquist, 699 F.2d 864, 869-70 and n. 12 (7th Cir. 1983). It suggests that the plaintiff is really after the employer, which is to say the state or a state agency. But the presumption cannot be conclusive in a system such as the federal Rules of Civil Procedure create, in which the complaint does not fix the plaintiff's rights but may be amended at any time to conform to the evidence. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(b); Phillips v. Vandygriff, 711 F.2d 1217, 1225, n. 9 (5th Cir. 1983). Whatever the plaintiffs may have had in mind when they named Franzen "in his capacity as Director" of the Illinois prison system, the case was tried as a suit against the defendants as individuals. This is shown most dramatically by the fact that the judge, at the defendants' request, instructed the jury that all of the defendants were being sued as individuals, that they were liable only for their personal acts or omissions to act, and that neither the State of Illinois nor the Illinois Department of Corrections was a defendant.

The defendants do not argue that the form of the complaint misled them. Bear in mind that Franzen resigned as Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections while the suit was in progress, while Wolff and Hert had already resigned from the offices named in the complaint. If the state attorney general's office, which represents state officials whether sued in their official or individual capacities, had thought this a suit against Franzen or Wolff or Hert in their official capacities, we do not understand why it did not move in either the district court or this court to substitute their successors in office as defendants in their place. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d)(1); Fed. R. App. P. 43(c). We hold that substance trumps form and that all the defendants were sued in their individual capacities. That this issue may not recur we urge counsel for civil rights plaintiffs when they are suing a state officer in his individual capacity to say so plainly; and if in both his individual and official capacities to make that unmistakably clear, too. Kolar v. County of Sangamon, supra, 756 F.2d at 568-69.

But being sued in their individual capacities the defendants could be held liable only for their individual wrongdoing. Section 1983 does not recognize a doctrine of superiors' liability. McKinnon v. City of Berwyn, 750 F.2d 1383, 1390 (7th Cir. 1984). Such a doctrine would be analogous to respondeat superior, which makes the employer, as distinct from a superior employee, liable for an employee's tort - and which is also unavailable in suits under section 1983. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 691-94, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611, 98 S. Ct. 2018 (1978). So Franzen could not be liable for the torts of his subordinates in the Department of Corrections. As there is no evidence of Franzen's individual wrongdoing - no evidence for example that he rewrote the guards' manual to eliminate some safety precaution in the event of fire - it may seem that the suit must really be against the office, and hence the state, not against the man. But the plaintiff is the master of his complaint. If he proceeds on a theory that he cannot substantiate factually, he is barred because of his failure of proof, not because another theory which he did not pursue is barred by an immunity. The plaintiffs charged Franzen with personal wrongdoing. Having utterly failed to prove that, they cannot get a judgment against him, but this conclusion has nothing to do with the Eleventh Amendment and does not resolve the liability of the other defendants.

An Illinois statute entitles state employees to be indemnified by the state for damages imposed on them for acts committed in the course of their state employment, unless the employee acted willfully or wantonly. Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 127, [P]1302(d). The defendants argue that the statute makes this a suit against the state, because the state will end up footing the bill for any damage judgment against them. Yet every court that has considered this issue has rejected, rightly in our view, the argument that an indemnity statute brings the Eleventh Amendment into play. See, e.g., Wilson v. Beebe, 770 F.2d 578, 588 (6th Cir. 1985); Demery v. Kupperman, 735 F.2d 1139, 1146-49 (9th Cir. 1984); Downing v. Williams, 624 F.2d 612, 626 (5th Cir. 1980), vacated on other grounds, 645 F.2d 1226 (1981) (per curiam).

Forget about the fact that the statute does not require the state to indemnify for punitive damages (because awarded only for conduct that is willful or wanton, or much worse); for as a matter of fact the State of Illinois usually indemnifies its employees for such damages and we assume would do so here. Nevertheless the purpose of the Eleventh Amendment is only to protect the state against involuntary liability. If the state chooses to pick up the tab for its errant officers, its liability for their torts is voluntary. It is true that the burden of tort judgments against state employees may eventually come to rest on the state with or without indemnity. If the state doesn't indemnify its officers it may have to pay them higher salaries so that they can buy insurance that will do so. But this type of argument has never succeeded in getting the bar of the Eleventh Amendment extended to suits against state officers in their individual capacities, and anyway is unrelated to the indemnity statute. Moreover, it would be absurd if all a state had to do to put its employees beyond the reach of section 1983 and thereby make the statute ineffectual except against employees of local governments (local government is not protected by the Eleventh Amendment) was to promise to indemnify state employees for any damages awarded in such a suit.

The defendants' last argument under the Eleventh Amendment is that since state law requires the state to pay, and it has paid, the plaintiffs' medical expenses, this suit insofar as it seeks the recovery of such expenses as an item of damages is really against the state. The opposite would be more nearly correct, once it is established that this is a suit against the defendants in their individual rather than official capacities. Insofar as the state has paid medical expenses incurred as a result of the defendants' wrongful acts, the state would have (but for the indemnity statute) a claim against the defendants to reimburse it. Its position would be akin to that of a coplaintiff, subrogated to so much of the plaintiffs' claim as seeks reimbursement for medical expenses that the state rather than the plaintiffs has actually borne.

The defendants' alternative argument against liability is that, even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, as of course we must do in appraising the argument, what they did could not reasonably be thought a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Negligence, perhaps; gross negligence - giving due regard for the jury's verdict - perhaps; but not cruel and unusual punishment. This is clear enough with regard to Franzen. Not having been personally involved in the security and safety measures regarding the bus, he is guilty at worst of neglect. But the other two appellants were personally and responsibly involved in securing the bus and in taking or failing to take measures to assure the safety of the prisoners transported on the bus. Their role is analogous to that of the police chief in McKinnon v. City of Berwyn, supra, 750 F.2d at 1391, who, having participated in conduct of his subordinates that led to the plaintiff's ...

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