Section 1983

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code is part of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT of 1871. This provision was formerly enacted as part of the KU KLUX KLAN ACT of 1871 and was originally designed to combat post-CIVIL WAR racial violence in the Southern states. Reenacted as part of the Civil Rights Act, section 1983 is as of the early 2000s the primary means of enforcing all constitutional rights.

Section 1983 provides:

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.

On March 23, 1871, President ULYSSES S. GRANT sent an urgent message to Congress calling for national legislation that could combat the alarming increase in racial unrest and violence in the South. Congress reacted swiftly to this request, proposing a bill just five days later. The primary objective of the bill was to provide a means for individuals and states to enforce, in

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the federal or state courts, the provisions of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. The proposed bill created heated debate lasting several weeks but was eventually passed on April 20, 1871.

During the first 90 years of the act, few causes of action were brought due to the narrow and restrictive way that the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the act. For example, the phrase "person ? [acting] under color of any statute" was not interpreted to include those wrongdoers who happened to be state or municipal officials acting within the scope of their employment but not in accordance with the state or municipal laws. Those officials were successfully able to argue that they were not acting under color of statute and therefore their actions did not fall under the mandates of section 1983. In addition, courts narrowly construed the definition of "rights, privileges, or immunities."

But the Supreme Court decisions in Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S. Ct. 473, 5 L. Ed. 2d 492 (1961), and Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S. Ct. 2018, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611 (1978), finally recognized the full scope of Congress's ORIGINAL INTENT in enacting section 1983. The Supreme Court began accepting an expansive definition of rights, privileges, or immunities and held that the act does cover the actions of state and municipal officials, even if they had no authority under state statute to act as they did in violating someone's federal rights.

Jurisdiction

Federal courts are authorized to hear cases brought under section 1983 pursuant to two statutory provisions: 28 U.S.C.A. § 1343(3) (1948) and 28 U.S.C.A. § 1331 (1948). The former statute permits federal district courts to hear cases involving the deprivation of civil rights, and the latter statute permits federal courts to hear all cases involving a federal question or issue. Cases brought under section 1983 may therefore be heard in federal courts by application of both jurisdictional statutes.

State courts may also properly hear section 1983 cases pursuant to the SUPREMACY CLAUSE of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. The Supremacy Clause mandates that states must provide hospitable forums for federal claims and the vindication of federal rights. This point was solidified in the Supreme Court decision of Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131, 108 S. Ct. 2302, 101 L. Ed. 2d 123 (1988). The Felder case involved an individual who was arrested in Wisconsin and later brought suit in state court against the police officers and city for violations of his federal rights. The state court dismissed the claim because the plaintiff failed to properly comply with a state procedural law. But the Supreme Court overturned the state decision, holding that the Wisconsin statute could not bar the individual's federal claim.

To bring an action under section 1983, the plaintiff does not have to begin in state court. However, if the plaintiff chooses to bring suit in state court, the defendant has the right to remove the case to federal court.

Elements of a Section 1983 Claim

To prevail in a claim under section 1983, the plaintiff must prove two critical points: a person subjected the plaintiff to conduct that occurred under color of state law, and this conduct deprived the plaintiff of rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed under federal law or the U.S. Constitution.

A state is not a "person" under section 1983, but a city is a person under the law (Will v. Michigan Department of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 109 S. Ct. 2304, 105 L. Ed. 2d 45 [1989]). Similarly, state officials sued in their official capacities are not deemed persons under section 1983, but if sued in their personal capacities, they are considered to be persons. Thus if a plaintiff wants to bring a section 1983 claim against a state official, she or he must name the defendants in their personal capacity and not in their professional capacity. Like a state, a territory, such as the territory of Guam, is not considered to be a person for the purposes of section 1983.

The Supreme Court has broadly construed the provision "under color of any statute" to include virtually any STATE ACTION including the exercise of power of one "possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law" (United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 61 S. Ct. 1031, 85 L. Ed. 1368 [1941]). Thus, the wrongdoer's employment by the government may indicate state action, although it does not conclusively prove it. Even if the wrongdoer did not act pursuant to a state statute, the plaintiff may still show that the defendant acted pursuant to a "custom or usage" that had the force of law in the state. In Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970), the plaintiff

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was able to prove that she was refused service in a restaurant due to her race because of a state-enforced custom of racial SEGREGATION, even though no state statute promoted racial segregation in restaurants.

A successful section 1983 claim also requires a showing of the deprivation of a constitutional or federal statutory "right." This showing is required because section...

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