Federal Law 42 USC 1983

The statute (law) under which most civil rights actions are brought is 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Read the Law: 42 U.S.C. § 1983

This is a "plain English" version of the section of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Because it does not describe the precise legal meanings of some of the terms used in the law itself, this definition is not complete. However, it will give you a general idea of what the law provides:

This law applies to situations where a  person, acting under the “color of state law,” deprives another person in the United States of his rights or privileges under the US Constitution or federal law. The person who believes that s/he has been harmed in this way may sue in court.

This law limits the way in which a person (who believes that s/he has been harmed) can sue a judge who has been acting in his or her official capacity.  

This law applies equally to Acts of Congress that affect only the District of Columbia.

Section 1983 can only be used to sue:

  • for intentional violations;
  • regarding federally protected rights; and
  • someone acting as a state or local official, or with state authority.

When is someone acting under the “Color of State Law”?

You may only sue a person who has authority to act under state law and has used or misused that authority to violate your federally protected rights.  You may sue this person even if s/he is abusing the power given to him or her under state law.  Section 1983 therefore does not allow for you to sue private persons for taking purely private actions, unless their actions can be fairly attributed to the state.  It can be tricky to determine whether the actions of a private person can be attributed to the state.  This is an area in which it can be helpful to talk to a lawyer.

One common type of 1983 case is a suit for damages resulting from the us of excessive force by a police officer.  

Other Federal Laws

There are other federal statutes that authorize law suits for violations of civil rights:

42 U.S.C. § 1981, prohibits intentional racial discrimination in making or enforcing contracts,

42 U.S.C. § 1982, prohibits intentional racial discrimination in property transactions, such as the sale or lease of real estate or even personal property (such as automobiles).

Read the Law: 42 U.S.C. Subchapter 1

Federal civil rights litigation is a highly complex area of law. It would probably be a good idea to hire a lawyer to represent you in such a case.


A "remedy" is what you hope to accomplish by filing a law suit. Remedies allowed under federal civil rights statutes include monetary damages, injunctions (court orders requiring the defendant to do something or to stop doing something), and declaratory relief (a statement by the court that your claim has been investigated and you have been found to be "in the right" and the defendant has been found to be "in the wrong").

Filing a Law Suit

Where - You have a choice between filing your federal civil rights suit in federal court or filing it in state court.

Federal Court - However, if you sue a state in federal court, the state may claim that the suit is "barred" (prohibited) by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Many courts have found that the Eleventh Amendment to bar (prohibit) suits for monetary damages by individuals against states in federal court.

When - Figuring out how much time you have to file your suit can be tricky. Civil rights claims may be barred by a "statute of limitations," a law that says you can no longer sue for something that has been done to you after a certain period of time has passed. Whether a civil rights claim is barred by the statute of limitations is a mixed question of state and federal law, regardless of which type of court you file in. Federal law determines when the clock starts running for determining how long you have to file; state law determines how long you have to file once the clock starts running.

Immunity from Suit

Some government officials have immunity from law suits arising out of their official activities.  This means that you cannot sue them as long as they were acting in their official capacity.  Government officials are not immune if they are acting as private citizens.

For example, judges who are sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are completely immune from individual liability for damages resulting from their "judicial acts." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978). Judges are not immune from 1983 suits seeking some kinds of injunctions.  See Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522 (1984). Whether something a judge does should be considered a "judicial act" depends on "whether it is a function normally performed by a judge." Stump, 435 U.S. at 362.

Officials who act only to enforce court orders may also be immune from liability for damages. 

Other officials who may be immune to damage suits in certain circumstances include legislators, prosecutors, and parole and probation officers.  This immunity depends on whether the person was acting in his or her official capacity and whether s/he had any reason to know that his or her action would violate an individual's federally protected rights.



Edited by Margot Kniffin, Esq.

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