Court says county doesn't have to pay for mistake

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that Los Angeles County does not have to pay attorney fees to a couple listed as child abusers even though they were declared innocent years ago.

Craig and Wendy Humphries were arrested by sheriff's deputies nine years ago after their rebellious daughter accused them of abuse. State courts ruled the allegation was false but they remain on California's Child Abuse Central Index.

In 2008, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found the system unconstitutional because there's no way for the innocent to clear their names. It ordered the state to come up with a new system and the county to pay $60,000 in attorney fees to the Humphries.

The high court reversed and remanded that decision, saying Los Angeles County does not have to pay.

Los Angeles County argued that it could only be held liable and pay damages if a county policy or custom caused a violation of a constitutional right under a 1978 Supreme Court decision in Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services.

The Child Abuse Central Index was a state policy, the county argued.

The federal appeals courts had also split on whether Monell applies only to damages, or if it also applies to prospective relief as well like injunctions or declaratory judgments such as the 9th Circuit's decision to give the Humphries attorney fees.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the 8-0 opinion for the court, said that it does.

"We conclude that Monell's holding applies to claims against municipalities for prospective relief as well as to claims for damages," Breyer said.

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the consideration and decision of the case because she worked on it while in the solicitor general's office.

The ruling addressed only a narrow technical question — whether Monell applied to non-monetary prospective relief — and doesn't affect the appellate court ruling that the Humphries' constitutional rights were violated, said Andrew J. Pincus, a Washington, D.C., attorney who argued the couple's case before the Supreme Court.

"That finding of a constitutional violation remains in full force," Pincus said in an e-mailed statement.

The Humphries still contend that the county "acted, and failed to act, pursuant to its policies and customs," Pincus said. "That issue will be litigated before the district court."

The case was Los Angeles County v Humphries, 09-350.