People whose civil rights have been violated by state or local officers in Nevada may be able to sue them in a “Section 1983” action. The victim would need to prove that the officer 1) acted under “color of law,” and 2) infringed on his or her constitutional rights.
Common grounds for Section 1983 claims include police misconduct in Nevada, such as police shootings, deadly police force, police dog bites, unlawful detention or false arrests, racial profiling, and medical neglect in Nevada jails.
Depending on the case, plaintiffs who prevail in Section 1983 lawsuits can get compensatory damages to cover their:
The court may also order that the defendant pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. And if the plaintiff can prove that the defendant acted maliciously, the plaintiff can also be eligible for punitive damages.
Note that federal officers who violate people’s civil rights can be sued in a “Bivens Claim,” which is like a federal version of a Section 1983 lawsuit.
In this article, our Las Vegas Nevada personal injury attorneys discuss:
- 1. Definition of a Section 1983 case
- 2. Who can be sued in Section 1983 cases
- 3. Winning money in a Section 1983 case
- 4. Time limit for bringing a Section 1983 case
- 5. Defenses to Section 1983 allegations
- 6. Federal cases (Bivens claims)
People have grounds to bring a lawsuit under 42 U.S. Code Section 1983 if a person acting “under color of law” violated their constitutional rights.1 This section discusses what constitutes 1) “color of law” and 2) constitutional rights.
1.1. Under Color of Law
“Under color of law” refers to people acting with the apparent authority of the state. Common examples of people who act under color of law while executing their job duties include:
- police chiefs and police officers
- county sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies
- prison guards and wardens
Even if these people break the law or act outside of the scope of their job duties, they are still “under color of law” if they appear and behave like officers and wield the authority of their badges and weapon.
For example, a jail guard who beats an inmate to death is acting under color of law even though unnecessary deadly force by Nevada law enforcement is illegal. And a police officer who shoots a cooperative suspect is acting under the color of law even though unnecessary shootings are illegal.2
1.2. Constitutional rights violations
Two of the constitutional rights that Section 1983 is meant to protect are 1) the Fourth Amendment right against illegal arrests and searches, and 2) the Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.
1.2.1. Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment prohibits police from:
- detaining suspects without a reasonable suspicion,
- arresting suspects without probable cause, and
- executing a search and seizure without a valid search warrant (with some exceptions)3
But even if the police had sufficient grounds to detain, arrest, or search, they can still face Section 1983 charges for acting unreasonably in the process. For example, police who use excessive force while executing an otherwise valid arrest warrant or search warrant may be liable under Section 1983.
1.2.2. Eighth Amendment
The Eighth Amendment prohibits the state from ordering excessive bails or fines or imposing cruel and unusual punishment. Section 1983 cases based on Eighth Amendment violations often involve allegations of prison guard brutality, medical neglect, or inhumane or dangerous conditions. For example, a prison guard who puts an inmate in solitary confinement for no justifiable reason may be liable under Section 1983.4
Plaintiffs bringing Section 1983 lawsuits typically sue the officers that allegedly violated their rights as well as the officers’ supervisors and the state or city agency that employs them. Therefore, typical defendants in these cases include:
- police officers,
- police chiefs,
- sheriff’s deputies,
- county sheriffs,
- prison guards,
- prison wardens,
- chief deputy wardens,
- director of the Nevada Department of Correction,
- medical director of the Nevada Department of Corrections,
- the city that employs the offending officer(s), and/or
- the county that employs the offending officer(s)
In order for a city or county to be held liable under Section 1983, plaintiffs would need to prove that a policy or custom of the municipality caused their constitutional injury.5
In some cases, non-government employees can be held liable as state actors under Section 1983 if they perform a traditionally public function. For example, the Nevada Supreme Court held that private hospital employees could be sued under Section 1983 because they performed the traditionally public function of detaining patients against their will for involuntary confinement.6
2.1. Section 1983 Immunity
Some parties may not be sued under 1983. These include:
- states (this is because they have sovereign immunity), and
As discussed above, cities and counties are not automatically immune from these lawsuits like states are.7
Plaintiffs who prevail in a Section 1983 lawsuit may be awarded compensatory damages, which can cover such as expenses as:
- medical bills,
- pain and suffering,
- lost wages, and/or
- loss of future earnings
If the plaintiff can show that the defendant acted with fraud, oppression, or malice, Nevada courts may also award punitive damages. Depending on the case, the size of punitive damages can be far greater than compensatory damages.
Also, the defendant(s) may be ordered to pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.8 Finally, Nevada courts may order “equitable relief” where the court orders the defendant(s) to take remedial action to prevent further Section 1983 violations. This often includes changing official policies and procedures.
Victims who have had their constitutional rights violated by people acting under color of law usually have two (2) years after the injury to bring a Section 1983 lawsuit. But if the victim was arrested in the incident, this two-year statute of limitations does not begin until after the criminal case ends in the victim’s favor. This way, the victim does not have to fight criminal charges and bring a civil lawsuit at the same time.9
The two most common defenses to Section 1983 lawsuits are:
- the defendants are immune from prosecution, and/or
- the defendants did not cause the plaintiff’s injury.
As discussed above in section 2.2, some parties are always immune to Section 1983 lawsuits, including judges and states. Otherwise, defendants can often claim “qualified immunity in Nevada“: This is the presumption that they performed their discretionary duties in good faith.
Therefore, plaintiffs in Section 1983 cases may have the initial burden to show that the defendants’ behavior clearly violated established statutory or constitutional rights. If the plaintiffs can show that the defendants overstepped the bounds of good faith, then the defendants will need to rely on other defenses (such as “lack of causation” discussed below) to fight the case.10
5.2. Lack of causation
A common defense in any civil case is that the defendant did not cause the plaintiff’s injuries.11 Just because a plaintiff gets hurt does not necessarily mean the officer in the case is liable. Henderson civil rights attorney Michael Becker provides an illustration:
Example: Ned gets arrested in Las Vegas for DUI after refusing to take a preliminary breath test and exhibiting signs of impairment. After the officer handcuffs Ned, Ned tries to pull out his hands and breaks his wrist in the process. Ned eventually gets acquitted of DUI due to blood testing errors. Ned then sues the officer under Section 1983 for handcuffing him and causing his broken wrist. Here, Ned probably would not prevail in his lawsuit: The officer followed standard protocol for arresting Ned and handcuffing him, and Ned caused his own injury by trying to extract himself out of the cuffs, not because the cuffs were defective. Even though Ned’s DUI charges were ultimately dismissed, the officer did not violate Ned’s civil rights or cause his injuries.
Had the officer in the above example handcuffed Ned without probable cause or used handcuffs that were clearly too small, then Ned might have a valid civil rights claim. But since the officer did not overstep his job duties or act unreasonably, the officer probably would not be held liable.
Section 1983 claims may target only state, county, or city officers — not federal officers — for violating the Constitution. But there is legal redress for people who have had their constitutional rights infringed upon by federal officers: They can bring a lawsuit similar to a Section 1983 claim called a “Bivens claim.”
In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court in Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents ruled that the plaintiff could bring suit against federal narcotics agents who violated his civil rights by arresting him without a warrant and humiliating him in front of his wife and children. It made no difference to the Court that the officers were federal employees rather than state or local employees: Since the officers clearly violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, they were vulnerable to a civil cause of action.
Therefore, the first step in bringing a civil rights lawsuit against law enforcement officers is to determine whether or not they are federal employees. Examples of federal agencies include:
- Department of Justice (DOJ)
- United States Marshals Service (USMS)
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
- Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
- U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)
- Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
If the offending officers are city, county, or state employees, the plaintiff can bring a Section 1983 lawsuit. If they are federal employees, the plaintiff can bring a “Bivens claim.”12
Is your case in California? Learn more in our article about Section 1983 claims in California.
- 14 U.S.C. 1983 (“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. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.”); State v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court, 118 Nev. 140 (2002)(“To establish a claim under § 1983, the plaintiff must prove that the conduct complained of: (1) was committed by a person acting under color of state law, and (2) deprived the plaintiff of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”).
- E.g., United States v. Reese, 2 F.3d 870(9th Cir.1993)(“This case involves illegal conduct by law enforcement officers during the detention and arrest of criminal suspects, conduct that unquestionably took place under color of law. Even if they were animated by “purely personal reasons,” appellants would not be immunized from criminal liability under section 242. Conduct that is so motivated may nevertheless be conduct “under color of law,” and thus may result in a conviction under the statute.”).
- Fourth Amendment (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”).
- Eighth Amendment (“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
- Will v. Michigan Department of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989)(“We hold that neither a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are `persons under § 1983.”); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967)(“It is a judge’s duty to decide all cases within his jurisdiction that are brought before him, including controversial cases that arouse the most intense feelings in the litigants. His errors may be corrected on appeal, but he should not have to fear that unsatisfied litigants may hound him with litigation charging malice or corruption.”).
- Cummings v. Charter Hosp., 111 Nev. 639 (1995)(“A private party may be deemed to be a state actor for § 1983 purposes under certain circumstances. Under the “public function” exception to the state action requirement, state action is present when the state delegates to a private entity “powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the State.” Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U.S. 345, 352, 42 L. Ed. 2d 477, 95 S. Ct. 449 (1974). The United States Supreme Court also discussed the state action requirement in West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 101 L. Ed. 2d 40, 108 S. Ct. 2250 (1988): “The traditional definition of acting under color of state law requires that the defendant in a § 1983 action have exercised power ‘possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.'” Id. at 49 (quoting United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 326, 85 L. Ed. 1368, 61 S. Ct. 1031 (1941)). Therefore, in the instant case, respondents were state actors if their power to involuntarily commit the patients was traditionally exclusively a state function which has been delegated to them or was made possible because they were clothed with the authority of state law.)”.
- Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978) (“Local governing bodies, therefore, can be sued directly under § 1983 for monetary, declaratory, or injunctive relief where, as here, the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body’s officers.”).
- 42 U.S.C. § 1988.
- Day v. Zubel, 112 Nev. 972 (1996)(“The United States Supreme Court has held that statutes of limitations apply to causes of action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S 261, 85 L. Ed. 2d 254, 105 S. Ct. 1938 (1985). Wilson was interpreted by the Ninth Circuit to mandate a two year statute of limitations for such actions in Nevada. Perez v. Seevers, 869 F.2d 425, 426 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 860, 107 L. Ed. 2d 128, 110 S. Ct. 172 (1989)…The United States Supreme Court recently reiterated the well recognized rule that the statute of limitations commences upon final termination of the original criminal proceeding in the claimant’s favor. Heck v. Humphrey, 129 L. Ed. 2d 383, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S. Ct. 2364 (1994).”).
- Butler v. Bayer, 123 Nev. 450 (2007)(“In 42 U.S.C. § 1983 actions, qualified immunity protects state officials from civil liability for damages resulting from discretionary acts, so long as those acts do not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights. Qualified immunity under federal law is not merely a defense to liability; it is “‘an entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation.'” Accordingly, a defense of qualified immunity should be resolved at the earliest possible stage in litigation, as a finding of qualified immunity is an appropriate basis for granting summary judgment.”).
- Van Cleave v. Kietz-Mill Minit Mart, 97 Nev. 414 (1981)(“Negligence is not actionable unless, without the intervention of an intervening cause, it proximately causes the harm for which complaint was made.” Thomas v. Bokelman, 86 Nev. 10, 13, 462 P.2d 1020, 1022 (1970). For an act to be the proximate cause of an injury, “it must appear that the injury was the natural and probable consequence of the negligence or wrongful act, and that it ought to have been foreseen in the light of the attending circumstances.” Crosman v. Southern Pacific Co., 42 Nev. 92, 108-109, 173 P. 223, 228 (1918), quoting Milwaukee, etc. Railway v. Kellogg, 94 U.S. 469, 475 (1876).”).
- Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971)(“An agent acting – albeit unconstitutionally – in the name of the United States possesses a far greater capacity for harm than an individual trespasser exercising no authority other than his own.”).