Federal Civil Rights Claims
Topics on this page:
- Introduction: What is Section 1983?
- What types of violations give rise to a Section 1983 claim?
- Who can I sue under Section 1983?
- What does “Under Color of Law” mean?
- What compensation or damages can I seek in a Section 1983 suit?
- What are some defenses to Section 1983 lawsuits?
- Other Federal Laws
- Other Organization Links
42 United States Code, § 1983, often referred to simply as Section 1983, is a section of the federal civil rights law. Section 1983 addresses situations where an individual’s civil rights have been violated. Specifically, Section 1983 allows an individual to sue a state or local government official who has violated their constitutional rights. Section 1983 claims can involve various constitutional violations, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, due process, equal protection, and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The law allows individuals to seek damages, injunctive relief, and attorney's fees for violations of their rights.
Note: Federal civil-rights litigation is a very complex area of 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 you are suing and the type of remedy you seek. If you are considering or have questions about filing a civil rights claim, you should contact a lawyer.
Read the Law: 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Section 1983 allows an individual to take legal action against someone who violates their federally protected rights. However, Section 1983 does not establish any rights. In practical terms, this means that you cannot file a lawsuit claiming that someone violated your § 1983 rights (there are none). To have a valid claim under Section 1983, you must assert more than just a violation of federal law. You must demonstrate the violation of a clearly established right.
The most common types of Section 1983 cases involve infringements of various constitutional rights, including:
- First Amendment rights: Freedom of speech, press, assembly, petition, and religion.
- Fourth Amendment protections: Safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures, including excessive force during an arrest and detention.
- Fifth Amendment protections: Against the government taking private property without just compensation.
- Eighth Amendment protections: Against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.
- Fourteenth Amendment rights: Including substantive and procedural due process, as well as equal protection claims.
Section 1983 claims encompass various types, like excessive force claims under the Fourth Amendment or denial of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. However, all Section 1983 claims share two essential elements:
- The plaintiff was subjected to actions performed under the authority of state law.
- These actions resulted in the deprivation of rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution or federal law.
Under Section 1983, you may only sue a person who is acting “under color of law.” That is, you can only sue a person acting with state-government authority or on behalf of a state government (sometimes a local government). A 1983 suit can only be brought against a person. The states themselves are not persons for purposes of Section 1983. That means you cannot bring a Section 1983 claim against, for instance, the state of Maryland.
For example, if a prison guard violates an individual’s civil rights due to the use of excessive force, the prison guard can be sued under Section 1983, but you cannot sue the guard’s employer (the state). See: Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 69 (1997).
Note: Under Section 1983, you cannot sue a private person for 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.
To act "under color of law" means to perform actions while using the authority and power granted by a government position or law, even if those actions exceed or abuse that authority. Generally, individuals who might be considered as acting under “color of law” are state employees, such as prison officials and police officers. Sometimes, private parties can act under color of state law if they are acting with state authority or on behalf of the state. For a violation to fall under Section 1983, the offender must have used their official authority or government position to commit the violation.
A “remedy” is what you hope to accomplish by filing a lawsuit. Generally speaking, the remedies allowed under a constitutional Section 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).
Statute of Limitations
Civil rights claims may be barred by a “statute of limitations,” which prevents you from filing a lawsuit after a certain amount of time has passed. Figuring out how much time that you have to file your suit can be tricky. 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 their actions in their official capacities.
With some exceptions, judges, legislators, and even prosecutors are immune from liability in a suit brought under Section 1983. If these individuals are acting in their official capacities, they cannot be sued!
There are other federal statutes that authorize lawsuits for violations of civil rights:
- 42 United States Code, § 1981, which prohibits intentional racial discrimination in making or enforcing contracts, and
- 42 United States Code, § 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. Chapter 21