In May, Lex Machina released Legal Analytics for Police Misconduct cases filed in federal district court, including adding new remedies, findings, and damages. For this article, we analyzed filing trends, most active districts, findings, and case resolutions using this dataset and focused on the 49,652 police misconduct cases filed from 2010 to 2020.

Our analysis of Police Misconduct cases in federal district courts revealed a recent general decrease in police misconduct cases filed, with a high proportion of cases resolved in favor of defendants.

Key Takeaways:

  • The number of Police Misconduct cases filed were steady from 2010 until 2015 when it underwent an overall decline, after which case filings plateaued through 2020.
  • In the five-year period from 2016 to 2020, the highest number of Police Misconduct cases were filed in the Central District of California, followed by the Northern District of Illinois.
  • The number of Police Misconduct cases filed in the Eastern District of New York and the Southern District of New York have decreased over the five-year period from 2016 to 2020, though they remain the third and fourth most active districts for Police Misconduct case filings.
  • For cases terminated in the five-year period from 2016 to 2020, courts found in favor of defendants over ten times as often as they found in favor of plaintiffs.
  • The average amount awarded in the 200+ cases with a claimant win at trial is greater than $1,000,000.
  • Courts found Monell or supervisory liability in 64 times as many cases as cases with a finding of no Monell or supervisory liability.
  • Courts found qualified immunity in 138 times as many cases as cases with a finding of no qualified immunity.
  • From 2016 to 2020, jury verdicts awarded over $78 million in damages to the top five Police Misconduct cases with the highest damages awards.

Methodology

We used the Police Misconduct tag to gain more information about patterns in police misconduct litigation. For a case to meet the definition for this tag, the complaint must allege a violation of the plaintiff’s civil rights by one of the following:

  • a law enforcement officer acting under color of law
  • a political subdivision (e.g., the city, township, or county) employing that officer
  • a supervisory official responsible for the law enforcement officer who violated plaintiff’s rights

Police Misconduct Cases Filed in Federal District Courts by Year

The chart below shows the number of Police Misconduct Cases that were filed each year from 2010 through 2020. The filings per year demonstrated an overall decline after 2015, which levels off from 2015-2020.

See this data as it currently appears in Lex Machina.

Leo Park and Dan Ray, members of our Data Team who developed this case set, noted that although this may seem counterintuitive given the increase in media-reported incidents with police over the past few years, it is important to look at how case filings break down by jurisdiction. As Police Misconduct cases tend to be focused in certain districts, shifts in policy or practices in specific jurisdictions may influence the trend of overall case filings. For example, the decline in case filings in the Eastern District of New York and the Southern District of New York mirrors the overall decline in Police Misconduct case filings, though the effect was mitigated by an increase in case filings in the Central District of California and the Northern District of Illinois (see section on Jurisdictions below).

There may also be a correlation between changing trends in Police Misconduct case filings and political swings that affect judicial appointments, in that civil rights attorneys may be more or less inclined to file a case based on their perceived chance of success before a specific judge. An example of this type of phenomenon is the fact that a civil rights attorney’s decision to take on a case is heavily influenced by the effect of qualified immunity. A finding of qualified immunity means that the defendant law enforcement officer was protected from liability for an alleged violation of one or more of the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. The broad effect of qualified immunity changes the perceived quality of the case and can end up preventing a case from getting to the courthouse in the first place.

Breakdown by Jurisdiction of Police Misconduct Cases Filed

In surveying Police Misconduct case filings over the five-year period from 2016 to 2020, the district with the most Police Misconduct cases filed was the Central District of California (1,403 cases, then the Northern District of Illinois (1,364 cases), followed by the Eastern District of New York (1,215 cases), and then the Southern District of New York (1,047 cases).

Looking at the case filing trends over a longer period from 2010 to 2020, we can see that Police Misconduct case filings in the New York district courts declined after 2015, a trend that mirrors the decline in overall Police Misconduct case filings (see above section on general Police Misconduct case filings). However, it should be noted that there were more cases filed in 2020 than 2019 in the Central District of California, the Northern District of Illinois, and the Southern District of New York. This is an interesting result, given the widespread pandemic shutdown and the related impact on courts and litigation in 2020. Another factor to consider is that there was a significant level of political and civil rights protests that occurred throughout 2020 and into 2021. Some of these demonstrations directly protested police misconduct, while some of them may have increased individual interactions with police.

The top districts for Police Misconduct case filings tend to focus on major urban areas and population centers, where there is a higher chance of interactions with police as well as a higher likelihood of finding an attorney to take on a Police Misconduct case. The high number of Police Misconduct cases filed in the New York district courts likely also reflects the history of ongoing controversies and conflicts with the New York Police Department. As Police Misconduct cases do not transfer venues well compared to other practice areas, certain courts become case filing “hot spots” based primarily on population.

Districts with the Highest Police Misconduct Case Filings (2010-2020)

See this data as it currently appears in Lex Machina.

Findings

Monell liability is found when the conduct of a law enforcement officer that deprived the plaintiff of a federal right was the result of a municipality’s official policy, custom, or practice. Supervisor liability is found when a supervisor-defendant’s subordinate violated the plaintiff’s civil rights and the supervisor is liable for the subordinate’s conduct because the supervisor either directed the action, had knowledge of the violation and acquiesced to it, or maintained a policy, practice, or custom that caused the violation, and the supervisor was indifferent to the consequences to the plaintiff’s rights.

For Police Misconduct cases terminated during the five-year period of 2016 to 2020, courts found no Monell or supervisory liability in 3,880 cases, primarily on summary judgment (2,379 cases). However, a large proportion of the findings were at judgment on the pleadings (1,869 cases). Courts found Monell or supervisory liability in only 60 cases, mainly at trial (37 cases). A high percentage of Monell claims are often dismissed at judgment on the pleadings, possibly in part because there tends to be (i) widespread confusion as to what constitutes a Monell claim, and (ii) an inclination to indulge in expansive pleading to attempt to maximize scope and recovery.

Comparison of Court Findings regarding Monell or Supervisory Liability for Cases Terminated 2016-2020
Judgment Event Monell/Supervisory Liability No Monell/Supervisory Liability
Judgment on the Pleadings 1 1869
Summary Judgment 19 2379
Trial (Bench or Jury) 37 47
Judgment as a Matter of Law 0 27

 

Courts found defendants were protected by qualified immunity defense in 2,490 cases, making this finding on summary judgment in 2,139 of these cases. In comparison, courts found no qualified immunity defense in only 18 cases, 12 of them on summary judgment. Courts generally don’t reconsider the question of qualified immunity at trial. Once it has been denied at summary judgment and the case proceeds to trial, it is rarely raised again to be determined at trial. Also, courts often have a policy preference for resolving the question of qualified immunity at a pre-trial phase, since part of the purpose of arguing qualified immunity is to prevent the trial in the first place.

Comparison of Court Findings regarding Qualified Immunity for Cases Terminated 2016-2020
Judgment Event Qualified Immunity No Qualified Immunity
Judgment on the Pleadings 588 1
Summary Judgment 2139 12
Trial (Bench or Jury) 19 5
Judgment as a Matter of Law 15 0

 

The stark contrast in findings is likely due in part to the asymmetry of training and resources and the steep burden civil rights plaintiffs face when bringing a Police Misconduct claim. For example, police procedures often create paper trails and bodycam footage that helps law enforcement demonstrate that their use of force was reasonable. Building a case to allege the opposite can be difficult.

Lex Machina provides comprehensive Legal Analytics on other findings including excessive force, failure to intervene, police malicious prosecution, and search and seizure. Many of these findings involve allegations of Fourth Amendment violations that occur during police interactions.

Case Resolutions

Over half of Police Misconduct cases filed during the time period from 2016 to 2020 terminated in settlement (59%). For the remainder of terminated Police Misconduct cases, the outcomes were heavily in favor of claim defendants. Police Misconduct cases filed during this time period resolved in a win for the defendants over 10 times as often as for plaintiffs. The majority of the cases resolved in favor of the defendants were resolved on summary judgment.

See this data as it currently appears in Lex Machina.

Damages

For the five-year period from 2016 to 2020, jury verdicts awarded over $78,000,000 (in compensatory and punitive damages, but excluding attorneys’ fees and interest) to the top five Police Misconduct cases with the highest damages awards that were not reversed or remitted.

Case Name Damages Awarded
Schand, et al v. City of Springfield, et al. $27,127,000.00
Rivera v. Guevara, et al. $17,175,000.00
Burgess v. Baltimore Police Dept., et al $15,000,000.00
Valenzuela v. City of Anaheim, et al. $13,200,000.00
Glover v. Vest, et al. $6,500,500.00

 

It should be noted that while all of these verdicts appear to have survived post-trial motions/appeals, we cannot determine whether the amounts were paid or collected. For example, a voluntary dismissal of appeals could suggest a settlement, with likely compromise of payouts.

Our team continues to monitor federal district litigation involving Police Misconduct and aims to present meaningful updates to trends as they unfold. We will monitor new case filings and explore the patterns of Police Misconduct cases filed in federal district courts.

This data is from the Lex Machina platform, where users can view Police Misconduct data in full and create valuable Legal Analytics using unique filters. The Legal Analytics are used for case strategy, such as understanding judge behavior and negotiating the best outcomes for your client. For more information, please contact us.

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This data was gathered from the Lex Machina platform on May 27, 2021. The Lex Machina platform updates daily and therefore any numbers in this blog post will change as new cases get added to the court systems. This report is meant to provide trends and general research information as of the date of publication.