Often when there are multiple defendants in a civil proceeding, the court may consider trying a defendant separately for a variety of reasons. Defendants may file a motion to bifurcate in matters if they feel that it is in their best interest. One such case that illustrates bifurcation was Jones v. Chapman in a Maryland U.S. District Court.
In this wrongful death action, officers making a traffic stop became engaged in a physical altercation with a motorist that ultimately resulted in his death. The family of the deceased named several officers that were involved as defendants, as well as the Police Commissioner. Part of the claim against the Commissioner was based on supervisory liability.
The Commissioner sought to bifurcate §1983 claims (a civil action for deprivation of rights) made against the police officers from the §1983 Monell and supervisor liability claims against the Commissioner. §1983 Monell was a precedent that allowed for local municipalities to be held liable for damages arising from unconstitutional actions. In addition, the Commissioner moved to stay (temporarily halt) the discovery process in the claims relating to him until the case against the officers was resolved. This is based on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 26(d), which involves provisions regarding the timing of disclosure.
In the Motion to Bifurcate, the defendant presented two main arguments:
- That bifurcation will provide economic benefits and increase efficiency.
- The defendant argued that the supervisory liability claims are dependent on the outcome of the claims against the officers.
- If the plaintiff does not prevail against the officers, there would be no basis or need to proceed with supervisory claims.
- Bifurcation would prevent potential prejudice among the defendants.
- To meet the standard for §1983 Monell or supervisor liability claims, the plaintiff must show evidence of prior police misconduct, which would be prejudicial to the officer defendants.
- The evidence involving the claims against the officers could create a potentially unfair influence that is prejudicial.
FRCP 42(b) states that courts may order a separate trial for any of the following reasons: convenience, to prevent prejudice, to increase efficiency, or for economic benefits. District courts may bifurcate based on their discretion. A §1983 claim allows a plaintiff to sue those acting on behalf of the state when an individual causes someone to be deprived of their constitutional rights. Plaintiffs must prove that a municipality had policies or procedures in place that violate these rights.
A §1983 “failure-to-train” supervisory claim requires that an employee violated a person's constitutional rights. This means that there would be no basis for supervisor liability if those being supervised are not found to have violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. §1983 Monell cases benefit from bifurcation if the defendants prevail because the court will not have wasted time on the subsequent supervisory claim. The court agreed to grant the motion because it may result in conserving significant judicial resources.