SECTION 1983 ACTIONS
“Section 1983” lawsuits involve citizens suing governmental actors that deprived them of rights under the United States Constitution and federal law. The bases for these actions range from restrictions upon free speech rights under the First Amendment, to discharge of an employee for racial or sex-based reasons in violation of the Equal Protection clause, to denial of adequate medical treatment afforded by the Eighth Amendment. But Section 1983 more commonly arises in the context of improper police searches and use of excessive force, which implicate the Fourth Amendment. In terms of civil rights violations, one of the more famous examples of an excessive force Section 1983 claim came about after the southern California riots in 1992, when trial lawyer, Federico C. Sayre, successfully sued the Los Angeles police department and its officers in a multi-million dollar lawsuit for severely beating Rodney King.
The Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights Act, known as “Section 1983,” was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. In relevant part, the Act reads:
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, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable.
42 U.S.C. § 1983. It is not a source of substantive rights. Rather, the Act provides a vehicle or private remedy for the vindication of rights.
The elements of a Section 1983 claim are simple enough. To prevail, a plaintiff needs to prove two points: a “person” subjected the plaintiff to conduct that occurred under color of state law, and this conduct deprived the plaintiff of rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed under federal law or the U.S. Constitution. Applying those elements, however, is not so simple, especially given the judicial interpretations of the Act that have evolved for more than a century.
In particular, the issue of who may be sued requires careful study. Under the Act, only “persons” are subject to liability. Individual employees of federal, state and local government fit the definition. The same goes for the local government itself, such as a municipality or a county, if its policies, procedures or customs were the “moving force” behind the constitutional violation. Monell v. Department of Soc. Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). A local government, for example, may be liable when it fails to train its employees, the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to an obvious need for such training, and the failure to train will likely result in the employee making a wrong decision. See, e.g., City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989). States and state agencies, however, are not considered “persons” and fall outside the scope of the Act.
Additionally, those “persons” covered by the Act may be protected by an immunity. For instance, legislators, judges and prosecutors enjoy “absolute” immunity in carrying out their functions. See, e.g. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 537 (1967). State or local government officials may also enjoy “qualified” immunity if the official can demonstrate he reasonably believed that his conduct did not violate the law and was constitutional. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)(emphasis supplied).
There are other procedural and substantive standards specific to this unique species of tort litigation. First, the forum state’s personal injury statute of limitations governs the Section 1983 claim. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261 (1985). If there is more than one, then the forum state’s residual statute of limitations applies. Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 435 (1989). Also, the state courts and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction, so there is no requirement that the plaintiff sue in federal court. The rule on exhaustion of administrative and judicial state remedies generally does not apply. There is no limit on actual damages. Punitive damages are available, but not against a defendant municipality. And the party prevailing in a Section 1983 action may recover attorneys’ fees under 42 U.S.C. §1988. It is also important to note that a Section 1983 claim may co-exist with other state law tort claims, such as wrongful death claims, that provide different forms of relief and limitations and that should be separately analyzed.
Lawsuits against the government are complex, time-consuming and costly. The attorneys at Bautista LeRoy LLC have in-depth knowledge and experience regarding Section 1983 claims. The firm has achieved considerable settlements for citizens whose rights were violated by the government, specifically in cases involving inhumane treatment in jails and prisons and the use of excessive force by law enforcement personnel. If you believe that you were deprived of your civil rights, do not hesitate to contact us.