Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

The State's Vicarious Liability for the Actions of the City

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

The State's Vicarious Liability for the Actions of the City

Article excerpt

In December 1998, seven welfare applicants brought a [section] 1983 (1) class action suit against both the City and State of New York. (2) They alleged that New York City had illegally deterred its residents from seeking public benefits to which they were entitled, and that New York State had "failed to properly oversee and supervise the City's administration of assistance programs." (3) A federal district court found in favor of the plaintiff class, issuing permanent injunctions against both the City and the State. (4) In Reynolds v. Giuliani, (5) the court of appeals reversed the district court's finding of liability against the State. (6) The court did not dispute that the City's actions had been illegal and that the plaintiffs had been deprived of rights secured by federal law. Instead, the court held that an injunction could not be issued against the State because Monell v. Department of Social Services (7) had precluded the imposition of respondeat superior liability under [section] 1983. (8) New York State thus could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of New York City.

Reynolds's invocation of the notion of respondeat superior represents just one approach that courts have utilized in addressing the question of when and how a state can be held vicariously liable for the actions of a city. (9) As will surprise no one familiar with the indeterminacy of city status in American law, (10) no single, coherent doctrine has emerged to help courts grapple with this issue. This lack of clarity undermines the potential utility of vicarious liability in facilitating the optimal delineation of roles between state and city. What is at stake, ultimately, may be the quality and effectiveness of local democracy itself.

This Note seeks to fill this gap and provide a framework in which to analyze whether the actions of the city are legally attributable to the state in which it lies. In order to properly assess when and how vicarious liability should be imposed on the state, courts should consider three primary interests: fairness, allocative efficiency, and the value of local democracy. This Note argues that, taking account of these considerations, the best rule would hold the state vicariously liable only for those city actions that the state itself has mandated that the city perform. Included within this category of city actions that would give rise to state liability are those that the state has ordered the city to undertake and those carrying out affirmative responsibilities that lie with the state under federal or state law. Part I provides background on the competing theories of the relationship between state and city.

Part II surveys the current jurisprudence on vicarious state liability for city action. Part III sets out the argument for holding the state liable for city action only when the state has required the city to undertake that action. While fairness and efficiency might be promoted by imposing vicarious liability on the state for a broad range of city actions, consideration of the value of local democracy suggests that the scope of vicarious state liability should be far narrower. Respondeat superior doctrine, imported from the employment context, would not successfully limit the scope of state vicarious liability. Instead, the rule advocated here promotes fairness, efficiency, and local democracy by limiting state vicarious liability to those areas where fairness and efficiency concerns arise with particular force, freeing the state from liability in other situations so as to permit it to leave space for meaningful local democracy.


Two conflicting lines of thought have dominated the debate over the proper place of the city in relation to the state in American law. Under the prevailing conception, the city is seen as a part of the state itself: a mere subdivision, not a separate, sovereign entity. The classic exponent of this view of the state-city relationship is John Dillon, a nineteenth-century lawyer. …

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