42 U.S.C. Section 1983 and Civil Rights Lawsuits

Civil rights violations occur when a person or entity deprives a citizen or person within the United States of any rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed to them by the U.S. Constitution or by law. 

The U.S. Constitution and the 1964 Civil Rights Act guarantee individuals certain civil rights and liberties. If a state actor deprives a person of their civil rights, that person may have a cause for legal action against them through a civil rights lawsuit in either state or federal court. This article focuses on 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a section of the U.S. Code that provides a civil cause of action against the person(s) responsible for the deprivation.

Civil Rights Lawsuits: Text of Section 1983

Often referred to simply as Section 1983, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 allows a person to sue state and local government officials who have violated their civil rights.

Section 1983 states:

“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 ... ."

To summarize, any person is liable when they act under the color of law in such a way that it deprives a U.S. citizen — or a person within the United States jurisdiction — of the rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed to them by the Constitution or by federal or state law.

Historical Development of Section 1983

Although passed in 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 did not come into use as a tool to prevent abuses by government officials for almost 90 years. In 1961, the U. S. Supreme Court decided the case of Monroe v. Pape. In its ruling, the Supreme Court listed three uses for the statute:

  1. Overriding state laws
  2. Providing remedies where state laws are inadequate
  3. Providing federal remedies where state remedies are available in theory but not in actuality

Section 1983 has evolved and expanded since 1961. For example, in Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded Section 1983 to permit civil suits against municipal entities, as well as individual state actors.

Since then, state officials found liable under Section 1983 have included police officers, other law enforcement officers, state and local government officials, municipal entities, and private parties acting under color of law. In certain situations, injunctive relief against a state actor may be granted.

Civil Rights Explained

Civil rights include the various rights designed to protect people from unfair treatment as it concerns the rights, privileges, and immunities enumerated in the Constitution. Federal law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent address the civil rights of individuals. Civil rights protect people from discrimination based on their personal characteristics. Examples of federal civil rights protections include:

  • The right to secure housing without unfair treatment or discrimination
  • The right to public education
  • The right to vote
  • The right to be free from discrimination or harassment in the workplace

In 1964, the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in areas such as employment, education, voting, and public accommodations. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of the following:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin

For example, denying an Asian American employee a promotion due to their race is a civil rights violation. An employer who denies a worker a promotion based on race or ethnic considerations has committed unlawful employment discrimination.

Civil Liberties vs. Civil Rights

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between civil rights and civil liberties.

As explained above, civil rights protect individuals from discrimination based on personal characteristics. Civil liberties, on the other hand, involve basic constitutional rights and freedoms. Civil liberties do not consider personal characteristics (race, gender, etc.) like civil rights. They are designed to protect people from unwarranted or overreaching government action.

Examples of civil liberties include:

  • Freedom of religion (First Amendment)
  • Freedom of the press (First Amendment)

Civil Rights Violations

When this deprivation of rights occurs, the person who was deprived of their rights may file a civil rights lawsuit against the person who deprived them of their rights.

civil case differs from a criminal case. A criminal case is a lawsuit filed by the federal or state government on behalf of the United States public. Government officials prosecute the defendant in a criminal case in either state courts or federal district courts. A victim in a criminal case does not have a responsibility to press charges against the offender.

A civil case, on the other hand, occurs when the plaintiff alleges the defendant failed to carry out a legal duty owed to the plaintiff. For example, if the plaintiff slipped and fell on a defendant's property, the plaintiff could file a personal injury civil action (a tort claim) against the defendant.

Respecting one's rights established by the Constitution, or under federal or state law, is a legal duty. Therefore, a civil rights violation is a civil action that is initiated in either state or federal court. Although criminal law may come into play in a civil rights suit, such a suit will be a civil action if brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. However, there are situations in which violating an individual's civil rights may result in criminal charges being filed against the state actors responsible. These cases are typically prosecuted in federal court under 18 U.S.C. § 242.

Examples of Civil Rights Violations

Examples of civil rights violations include:

  • A prison guard's unlawful use of force against a prisoner
  • Police misconduct such as unlawful arrest, racial profiling, or using excessive force
  • Government officials restricting free speech in the workplace

Civil Rights Lawsuits and Sovereign Immunity

Under common law, sovereign immunity bars actions against the state and its agents. To sue the federal government or a state or local government, the government entity had to waive its sovereign immunity.

In Chisholm v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the lawsuit brought by an out-of-state resident against the state of Georgia. The court held Georgia did not have sovereign immunity in this case. In response, Congress passed the 11th Amendment. The 11th Amendment prohibits lawsuits by private citizens against states in federal court due to sovereign immunity.

However, subsequent Supreme Court cases have established that the 11th Amendment has not absolutely removed the ability to sue states for constitutional violations. Section 1983 creates rights for private citizens under federal law to initiate lawsuits against states and their agents.

Qualified Immunity

State and local officials are granted qualified immunity. This means they are immune from individual liability unless plaintiffs show that the official violated a clearly established constitutional right. The test is "would a reasonable person have known that their actions violated the plaintiff's statutory or constitutional rights?" As a practical matter, if a police officer holds a reasonable belief that their actions were lawful, they most likely will not be held liable for their actions pursuant to Section 1983.

Requirements for Section 1983 Relief

The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted Section 1983 to mean that a plaintiff must prove two elements to prevail on their claim:

  1. The defendant acted under the color of state law.
  2. The act(s) (or failure to act) of the defendant deprived the plaintiff of their particular rights under either the laws of the United States or the U.S. Constitution.

Whether a person acted under the color of law depends on whether the person acted, or purported to act, in the performance of their official duties under any applicable law.

Whether civil rights arise under the U.S. Constitution or federal statutes, it can be difficult to establish that a right exists or that the person infringing that right was acting "under color of law."

Get Legal Help Understanding 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Civil Rights Lawsuits

Although Section 1983 authority has expanded recently, such claims remain complicated from a procedural standpoint. Strict procedural rules must be followed in order to successfully bring a claim in federal court. Contact an experienced Section 1983 attorney who can review your case and help you prepare an effective claim.

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