Federal Civil Rights Claims

Generally, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 provides that every person who under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any state or territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

Only "persons" under the statute are subject to liability. A state is not a person subject to suit under section 1983, but a state officer can be sued in his official capacity for prospective or injunctive relief despite the fact that a suit against a government official in his official capacity represents nothing more than a suit against the government entity itself. While a state may not be sued for monetary damages, it may be sued for declaratory or injunctive relief. Similarly, the United States Government is not subject to suit, while individual employees of federal government may be sued in their individual capacities for damages, declaratory or injunctive relief. In contrast, municipalities and local governments are persons subject to suit for damages and prospective relief.

The traditional definition of acting under the color of state law requires that the defendant have exercised power "possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law, and such actions may result in liability even if the defendant abuses the position given to him by the state. A private actor may also act under color of state law under certain circumstances. For example, it has been held that a physician who contracts with the state to provide medical care to inmates acts under the color of state law. For all practical purposes, the "color of state law" requirement is identical to the "state action" prerequisite to constitutional liability.

In order to hold a local government liable under section 1983, the Supreme Court has interpreted this causation element to require that the harm be the result of action on the part of the government entity that implemented or executed a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers, or the result of the entity's custom. Further, the entity's policy or custom must have been the "moving force" behind the alleged deprivation. This "custom or policy" requirement is a dramatic departure from the rule of vicarious liability that prevails in many common law actions.

A local government is said to have an unconstitutional policy when it fails to train its employees, and the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to an obvious need for such training, and the failure train will likely result in the employee making a wrong decision. An unconstitutional policy may also exist if an isolated action of a government employee is dictated by a "final policymaker or if the authorized policymaker approves a subordinate's decision and the basis for it. However, a supervisor can only be liable in his individual capacity if he directly participates in causing the harm--relying upon vicarious liabilityis insufficient.

Section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights, it merely provides a method for the vindication of rights conferred in the United States Constitution and Laws. Therefore, a plaintiff may prevail only if he can demonstrate that he was deprived of rights secured by the United States Constitution or federal statutes.

A plaintiff may file a civil rights suit in federal or state court. Additionally, a plaintiff may combine claims for violations of state tort law. With respect to the extent of damages available for violations of federal law, the Supreme Court has noted that the basic purpose of a section 1983 damages award is to compensate the victims of official misconduct, and therefore held that there is no limit on actual damages if they can be proven. But where they are not proved, only nominal damages of $1.00 may be awarded, punitive damages may also be awarded, but not against a municipality. Injunctive relief is also permitted.

States and state agencies are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity in federal court, but local governments have no immunity from damages flowing from their constitutional violations, and may not assert the good faith of its agents as a defense to liability. Further, state law sovereign immunity and state law limitations on damages do not protect local governments from liability under section 1983, and state laws requiring pre-suit notification prior to initiating an action against the state or its subdivisions similarly do not apply. Therefore, local governments are left in the unique and unhappy situation of being subject to suit without the benefit of any form of immunity.

In contrast to the distinct lack of immunity available to local governments, individual capacity defendants are protected by qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is a powerful tool that shields individual officials who are performing discretionary activities unless their conduct violates "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." A government official is entitled to qualified immunity unless his "act is so obviously wrong, in the light of preexisting law, that only a plainly incompetent officer or one who was knowingly violating the law would have done such a thing." The qualified immunity inquiry is purely objective--the subjective intentions of the actor is irrelevant. Qualified immunity is not only immunity from liability, but it is immunity from suit as well, and shields individual capacity defendants even where a constitutional violation may have occurred. Likewise, a court should scrutinize a plaintiff's claim to determine if the plaintiff states a constitutional claim at all, prior to analyzing whether the defendant is entitled to qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity must be plead as an affirmative defense by the defendant officialand becomes a matter for the court to decide, even if it requires a factual determination as to whether the defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances, and the court should rule on the issue of qualified immunity at the earliest possible stage of litigation. An individual defendant in federal courtmay immediately appeal a denial of qualified immunityeven if a prior appeal of the denial of qualified immunity was unsuccessful, and even if other claims remain for trial. Until the issue of qualified immunity is decided, the defendant official may resist discovery and there is authority to the effect that he may stay the entire proceedings during an appeal of the denial of qualified immunity. The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976 provides that one who prevails in a section 1983 action is entitled to recover attorney's fees. It has been held that prevailing plaintiffs are entitled to recover attorney's fees unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust, while a prevailing defendant may be awarded attorney's fees only upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith.

Disclaimer: The information contained below is for general guidance on matters of interest only and NOT legal advice. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on the specific facts involved. Given the changing nature of laws, rules and regulations, there may be omissions or inaccuracies in information. Accordingly, this information is provided with the understanding that it should not be used as a substitute for consultation with a competent attorney.