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Supervisor Liability for Acts of Subordinates (42 U.S.C. § 1983)

Nov 9, 2019 | Los Angeles Information

No Automatic Liability

Under the theory of Respondent Superior there is no vicarious liability for the actions of a subordinate just because a person is a supervisor. Just knowledge about a violation is not enough to impose supervisory liability, thus for pursuing a supervisory liability claim, a plaintiff must be able to show the following:

  • Supervisors’ involvement in the wrongful conduct
  • Actual knowledge, a personal direction, or knowing acquiescence in the violation
  • Contemporary knowledge of the violation and proof of a pattern of approval, through knowing inaction or consent

Elements the Plaintiff Must Establish

According to CACI 3005 in case the plaintiff claims that the defendant is personally liable for his harm he must be able to prove the following elements to establish the claim:

  • Defendant knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known, of his employee’s wrongful conduct
  • Defendant knew that the wrongful conduct created a substantial risk of harm to the plaintiff
  • Defendant disregarded that risk by expressly approving, impliedly approving or failing to take adequate action to prevent his employee’s wrongful conduct
  • Plaintiff was harmed
  • Defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing harm to the plaintiff.

Deliberate Indifference

When the supervisor is found responsible for causing harm to the plaintiff based on deliberate indifference, then he is being held liable for his own wrongful action or inaction, but not held vicariously liable for the wrongful actions or inactions of his subordinates

Agency Immunity Rule

According to California Civil Code Section, 2351a sub-agent, legally appointed, represents the principal in like manner with the original agent; and the original agent cannot be liable to third persons for the acts of the sub-agent. Thus, the general rule is that an agent is not responsible for the unlawful act of an employee when the agent is acting on behalf or in an official capacity of the principal. This is called “agency immunity rule.”  There are substantive exceptions to hold supervisory authority liable for the actions of their employees.

  • Negligent hiring or appointment

A supervisor can be held liable for the actions of the employee if he is guilty of negligence in the appointment of such sub-agent. The negligence can include a decision to hire an employee despite knowledge of wrongful conduct of the employee.

  • Cooperate or authorize the unlawful conduct

According to California Civil Code Section 2343, a supervisor can be responsible for the torts of an employee within the scope of authority, rather than in an individual capacity. In case the supervisor authorizes or directs an unlawful act of the subagent, or improperly cooperates in the subagent’s acts, then he can be held liable for his illegal conduct.

  • Expansive Authority

A supervisor with expansive authority over the hiring, management or firing his employee can be liable for the illegal conduct of the employee, in case he had prior knowledge of the tendencies of its employees to commit such conduct.