United States Code Section 1983 & Civil Rights Litigation

42 U.S.C. Section 1983 is a federal civil rights law. The section allows victims whose civil rights have been violated to bring lawsuits in state or federal court. Victims can pursue monetary damages or an injunction.

The injunction can prevent the violation from happening again. The damages can compensate the victim and punish the wrongdoer. However, victims have to overcome the qualified immunity defense in order to recover monetary damages.

section 1983 civil rights law
Section 1983 is a federal civil rights law that helps people whose civil rights have been violated.

1. What is a Section 1983 lawsuit?

A Section 1983 lawsuit is a civil rights lawsuit. It can be filed by someone whose civil rights have been violated. The victim can file the lawsuit if the wrongdoer was acting “under color of law.”

Civil rights are those guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution or certain federal laws.1 Those civil rights can be violated when:

  • police misconduct such as excessive use of a taser during an arrest,2
  • police officers wantonly search a victims' homes and kill their dogs,3
  • a judge sexually assaults women while in the course of his job,4
  • state officials strip welfare recipients of their benefits,5
  • jail guards put an ex-gang member in a prison cell with current gang members, even after being told of the danger.6

Rights guaranteed by state law cannot be the basis of a Section 1983 lawsuit. Only federal rights are protected by the statute.7

Technically, Section 1983 is nothing more than a procedural device. It gives federal courts jurisdiction to hear civil rights cases. No one can be liable under Section 1983. Instead, it creates liability for violating other federal laws. That is why 1983 cases always include an alleged violation of another law, like the:

  • Fourth Amendment,8
  • Eighth Amendment,9 or
  • Social Security Act.10

Section 1983 was originally designed to protect slaves who were freed in the Civil War. Southern states passed laws that harassed and intimidated them. Police in the south used their positions to assault them. The law was passed as a part of the Enforcement Act of 1871. It allowed black victims to file a lawsuit and recover money damages. That lawsuit could be filed in federal court. This allowed the victim to avoid state court. In state court, the victim would likely have faced a strong bias.

2. What does “under color of law” mean?

The civil rights violation has to be committed “under color of law.” People act under color of law when they behave with the apparent authority of the state. While on the job, police officers and jail guards act under color of law.11

State officials can act under color of law while they break the law, too. They can violate official policy and still maintain the appearance of state action.12 So long as they have the appearance of state actors, they can be sued.

Example: Acting on their own, 13 uniformed police officers break into a house and arrest a man in front of his family. They hold him at the station for 10 hours before releasing him without charge.13

This means that off-duty police officers can be acting under the color of law. However, there have to be signs that the officer made it seem like he was on the job. Factors could include:

  • showing a police badge,
  • claiming to be a police officer,
  • brandishing a gun,
  • behaving like a police officer, and
  • acting like an arrest was being made.

However, working for the state does not always mean that a person acts under color of law. Some people who technically work for the state cannot act under color of law.

Example: Public defenders cannot act under color of law. Their role is to fight the state's prosecutions.14

On the other hand, people who do not work for the government can still act under color of law. This can happen if they conspire with government officials to deprive someone of their civil rights.

Example: A businessman works with a corrupt judge to keep a competitor from drilling oil wells.15

person angrily pointing his finger
Victims of civil rights violations can sue people who acted under color of law.

3. Who can I sue under Section 1983?

Victims of civil rights violations can sue people who acted under color of law. This includes:

  • people who work for the government,
  • other individuals who conspire with those government workers, and
  • certain government entities.

A Section 1983 claim can be filed against state and local officials such as:

  • police officers,
  • sheriff's deputies,
  • state or county prison guards,
  • police chiefs,
  • county sheriffs, and
  • prison wardens.

However, Section 1983 does not normally reach federal officials.16 Federal officials can only be sued under Section 1983 if they act alongside state or local officials.17 When they are acting on their own, federal officials can be sued in a Bivens lawsuit, instead.

Private individuals can also be sued if they conspire with state officials. This would make them act under color of law.18

When the constitutional violation was a custom or policy of the municipality, the municipality can be sued, too.19 Municipalities include:

  • towns,
  • villages,
  • cities,
  • counties, and
  • any municipal program or department, like a school board or public transit service.

However, states like California or Texas cannot be sued in a Section 1983 claim.20

4. Can you bring a 1983 claim in state court?

Victims can file a Section 1983 claim in state court.21 However, the ability to recover monetary damages is drastically reduced. The state official cannot be sued in for official conduct for money damages.22

5. What damages can I obtain?

Successful Section 1983 claims can produce 2 kinds of remedies:

  • compensation for the civil rights violation known as monetary damages, and/or
  • prospective relief, also known as an injunction.

Monetary damages include compensation as well as punitive damages. The compensation aims to cover the victim's:

The punitive damages aim to punish the wrongdoer for violating the victim's rights. They cannot be recovered from a municipality, though.23

Some state officials are absolutely immune to 1983 claims for monetary damages. This immunity applies to their official conduct. These people include:

  • prosecutors,24
  • judges,25 and
  • state lawmakers.26

Section 1983 claims that demand damages are also susceptible to the qualified immunity defense. This defense allows other state officials to claim they were acting in good faith. The defense can succeed so long as they did not:

  • violate the victim's civil rights, and
  • those rights were so clearly established that a reasonable officer would have known their conduct was a violation.27

However, municipalities cannot make use of the qualified immunity defense. They can be held liable even if they did not know they were violating the victim's civil rights.28

Section 1983 claims can also pursue prospective relief. This comes in the form of an injunction, or a court order. That order changes be made to prevent another, similar violation from happening in the future.

6. Is there a statute of limitations?

There is a statute of limitations for Section 1983 claims. This means the lawsuits must be filed within a certain time frame. However, that length of time depends on the type of civil rights violation.

Courts have to apply the statute of limitations that is most similar to the violation.29 This is often a personal injury statute of limitations, which tends to be 3 years. However, some 1983 cases can have different time constraints.

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Legal References:

  1. See e.g., Gonzaga University v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002).

  2. Bryan v. MacPherson, 630 F.3d 805 (9th Cir. 2010).

  3. San Jose Charter of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club v. City of San Jose, 402 F.3d 963 (9th Cir. 2005).

  4. U.S. v. Lanier, 520 U.S. 259 (1997).

  5. Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1 (1980).

  6. Cortez v. County of Los Angeles, 294 F.3d 1186 (9th Cir. 2002).

  7. Maine v. Thiboutot, Supra.

  8. Bryan v. MacPherson, Supra.

  9. Cortez v. County of Los Angeles, Supra.

  10. Maine v. Thiboutot, Supra.

  11. Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91 (1945).

  12. Home Telephone & Telegraph Co. v. Los Angeles, 227 U.S. 278 (1913).

  13. See Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961).

  14. Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312 (1981).

  15. Dennis v. Sparks, 449 U.S. 24 (1980).

  16. Wheeldin v. Wheeler, 373 U.S. 647 (1963).

  17. Tongol v. Usery, 601 F.2d 1091 (9th Cir. 1979).

  18. Dennis v. Sparks, Supra.

  19. Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).

  20. The Eleventh Amendment prevents states from being sued in federal court. Will v. Michigan Department of State Police 491 U.S. 58 (1989) decided that states are not considered a “person” that can be sued under Section 1983, blocking lawsuits in state court.

  21. Maine v. Thiboutot, Supra.

  22. Will v. Michigan Department of State Police, Supra.

  23. City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, 453 U.S. 247 (1981).

  24. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976).

  25. Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978).

  26. Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367 (1951).

  27. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982).

  28. Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622 (1980).

  29. Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235 (1989).

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