Supervisory Liability Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the Wake of Iqbal and Connick: It May Be Misconceived, but It’s Not a Misnomer

The Supreme Court’s blockbuster opinion in Ashcroft v. Iqbal has been the herald of substantive change throughout several areas of law. Most recently, however, discourse regarding its effects in the context of the supervisory liability doctrine has blossomed throughout the federal appellate fora and has resulted in a circuit split. At the center of the debate is the Court’s unadorned proclamation that the term “‘supervisory liability’ is a misnomer” because “[a]bsent vicarious liability, each Government official, his or her title notwithstanding, is only liable for his or her own misconduct.” Adding to that debate, this Note joins a growing chorus of scholarship discussing the continued existence of supervisory liability claims in constitutional tort litigation post-Iqbal, given the Court’s subsequent decision in Connick v. Thompson.

Rather than simply mourn the current state of the legal doctrine, or rehash views on the subject that have previously been published, this Note offers a practical analysis that federal courts should adopt in favor of a pre-Iqbal understanding of supervisory liability. To that end, this Note concludes that the Court’s decision in Connick suggests that supervisory liability is anything but a “misnomer.” This, of course, is derived from Connick’s observation that a supervisor’s deliberate indifference is functionally equivalent to intentional conduct. To be certain, however, this Note establishes that equivalence independent of the Court’s discussion in Connick by looking to the Supreme Court’s previous discussions regarding 42 U.S.C. § 1983’s outer limits, the statute’s legislative history, and corresponding circuit court precedent. Through that analysis, this Note confirms that a supervisor’s deliberate indifference to their subordinate’s constitutionally tortious conduct must be redressable under § 1983.