Civil Rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
This article is designed to provide its readers with a general overview of the federal law 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Read the Law: 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Note: Federal civil-rights litigation is a very complex area of law. If you have questions, you should contact a lawyer.
What is § 1983?
Generally speaking, § 1983 allows individuals to enforce their constitutional rights – and some rights found in other federal laws – against persons who are acting on behalf of a state or local government.
Important: if you want to file a § 1983 claim, you must show that you have been:
- deprived of a constitutional right
- by a "person"
- acting under the "color of law."
Below, this article discusses each of those three elements.
How do I know if I have been deprived of a constitutional right?
Section 1983 does not contain any substantive rights; that means you cannot file a lawsuit claiming that someone violated your § 1983 rights (there are none).
Instead, § 1983 simply allows you to sue a person – who was acting on behalf of a state government – when that person deprived you of a right that is contained in the U.S. Constitution.
Some of the rights that you have under the constitution include the First Amendment’s right to free speech and religion, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. For more information on constitutional rights, click here.
A common type of § 1983 case involves claims against police officers or prison guards for using excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Typical § 1983 Claims.
Who is a "person"?
A person is a human. The states themselves are not persons for purposes of § 1983. That means that you cannot bring a § 1983 claim against, for instance, the state of California.
Using the example of the prison guard that used excessive force, § 1983 allows you to sue that official (but it cannot be used to sue his employer, the state). See Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 69 (1997).
When is a person acting under the "Color of State Law"?
Under § 1983, you may only sue a person who is acting under “color of state law” or, more simply, with state-government authority or on behalf of a state government (sometimes a local government).
Generally, individuals who might be considered as acting under “color of state law” are state employees, such as prison officials and police officers. But sometimes private parties can act under color of state law, if they are acting with state authority or on behalf of the state.
Note: Under § 1983, you cannot sue a private person taking a purely private action. It can be tricky to determine whether the actions of a private person are attributable to a state. This is an area in which it can be helpful to talk to a lawyer.
A “remedy” is what you hope to accomplish by filing a lawsuit. Generally speaking, the remedies allowed under a constitutional § 1983 claim include:
- Compensatory damages (money to compensate for injury);
- Punitive damages (damages that exceed the compensatory damages and are intended to punish the defendant);
- An injunction (an order from the court 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").
Read the law: Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 51 (1983).
Filing a lawsuit
Where - You have the choice between filing your federal civil rights lawsuit in federal court or in state court.
When - Figuring out how much time that you have to file your suit can be tricky. Civil rights claims may be barred by something called a “statute of limitations,” which prevents you from filing a lawsuit after a certain amount of time has passed. Whether the statute of limitations prohibits your claim is a mixed question of state and federal law. Generally, federal law determines when the clock starts running for determining how long you have to file, and state law determines how long you have to file once the clock starts running.
Some government officials have immunity (they can’t be sued) for the actions that they take in their official capacities.
With some exceptions, judges, legislators, and even prosecutors are immune from liability in a suit brought under § 1983. As long as these individuals are acting in their official capacities, they cannot be sued!
Note: Again, this is a very complex area of the law. It frequently involves sovereign immunity issues that arise under the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, immunity issues are intertwined with the type of person that you are suing and the type of remedy that you are seeking. If you are seriously considering filing a civil rights claim, please also consider consulting an attorney.
Other Federal Laws
There are other federal statutes that authorize law suits for violations of civil rights:
- 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which prohibits intentional racial discrimination in making or enforcing contracts, and
- 42 U.S.C. § 1982, which prohibits intentional racial discrimination in property transactions, such as the sale or lease of real estate or personal property (such as automobiles).
Read the Law: 42 U.S.C. Subchapter 1
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