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Section 1983 and Civil Rights Lawsuits

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

In the U.S., people are guaranteed certain civil rights. In fact, if a state actor uses the legal system to deprive someone of their constitutional rights, the person may have a cause of action against them in the form of a civil rights lawsuit. More specifically, 42 U.S. Code, Section 1983 provides a civil cause of action against the person responsible.

Civil Rights Lawsuits: Text of Section 1983

It's often helpful to read the actual text of a statute as you begin your research and understanding of a law. The text of 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, 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.

Civil Rights Lawsuits and Sovereign Immunity

At common law, actions against the state and its agents were barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Following the landmark Supreme Court case of Chisolm v. Georgia, in which the court permitted the lawsuit of an out-of-state resident against Georgia, Congress passed the 11th Amendment. The Amendment explicitly prohibited lawsuits against states.

However, subsequent Supreme Court cases have established that the 11th Amendment has not totally removed the ability to sue states for their constitutional violations. This is where Section 1983 comes into play as it creates rights under federal law to initiate lawsuits against states and their agents.

Historical Development of Section 1983

Although passed in 1871, Section 1983 did not come into use as a tool to prevent abuses by state officials until 1961 with the Supreme Court case of Monroe v. Pape. In Monroe the Supreme Court listed three uses for the statute:

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

Section 1983 has undergone continuing expansion since this time, permitting suits against municipal entities as well as state actors. State officials found blameworthy under Section 1983 have included police officers, correctional officers, state and municipal officials, municipal entities, and private parties acting under color of law.

Requirements For Section 1983 Relief

There are many requirements that must be fulfilled before Section 1983 relief can be made available. The claimant must have had federal rights violated by someone acting under color of state law. It can be difficult to establish that a right exists, or that the person infringing that right was acting "under color of law." It's also important to note that the Eleventh Amendment continues to provide a limited immunity to some actors for certain acts.

The Supreme Court case Cort v. Ash provided the following four-part test for determining whether a claimant has the right to sue under a federal statute:

  1. The claimant has membership in the class for whose benefit the statute was enacted;
  2. There is evidence of congressional intent to confer a private remedy;
  3. There is consistency between the right to sue and Congress' statutory intent; and
  4. The claim involves a cause of action not traditionally relegated to the states.

The test effectively requires both a private right and a private remedy.

Get Legal Help Understanding Section 1983 and Civil Rights Lawsuits

Although Section 1983 authority has expanded dramatically since its introduction, claims of this sort remain procedurally complicated. There are a host of elements that need to be established before a claim can be pursued and without careful preparation your case could be sunk before it even starts. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can review your case and help you prepare an effective claim.

Next Steps

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