1983 claims are lawsuits filed against certain officials and entities who acted “under color of law.” It’s a special type of claim made against the government when it violates citizens’ civil rights. If you’ve had your constitutional rights trampled, you may have the right to pursue one of these lawsuits. But maintaining a 1983 claim isn’t easy, and plaintiffs almost always run into a wall of defenses designed to protect the wrongdoer. You need a dedicated law firm that is experienced with these types of lawsuits. You need Cooper Schall & Levy.
What Is a 1983 Claim?
Named for its specific section of the U.S. Code – 42 U.S.C. §1983 – a so-called 1983 claim is filed when someone violates the civil rights of a private citizen. The victim of the civil rights violation can only sue if the wrongdoer was acting under color of law
“Color of law” usually refers to a government official who is acting within the scope of their official duties. A 1983 claim arises when that official exceeds their lawful authority in some way. Another way of describing this is to say that while the official was doing his or her job, he or she violated a citizen’s civil rights
Only violations of rights protected by the U.S. Constitution or by federal statute can give rise to a 1983 claim. Infringements of rights protected by state laws or state constitutions cannot. Therefore, a 1983 claim always alleges a violation of some other law or some protection enshrined in the Constitution.
What Are Some Examples of 1983 Claims?
Citizens enjoy several constitutional and statutory protections, which means there are many different ways a government official can violate your rights. Two of the most common examples of 1983 claims are:
Police misconduct. Cases involving police misconduct present some of the most frequently litigated 1983 claims. Within this broad category of cases are the following examples:
- Use of excessive or unreasonable force
- Lack of probable cause to arrest someone
- Falsifying evidence
- Deliberately withholding or destroying exonerating evidence
If you believe your rights were violated in some way by the police, it’s important to speak with a knowledgeable 1983 claims attorney to explore your legal options.
Prison or jail guard misconduct. Similarly, guards at prisons and jails can be accused of violating the rights of inmates. Sometimes this happens with overt acts or omissions, like beating a prisoner or looking the other way to allow other inmates to engage in assault. But it can also happen by:
- Depriving an inmate of the right to speak with legal counsel
- Violating an inmate’s right to worship
- Withholding necessary medical care to a sick or injured inmate
- Subjecting an inmate to inhumane or degrading treatment
Who Can Be Sued in a 1983 Claim?
State and local officials can be sued under a 1983 claim if they acted under color of law. It is also possible to sue local governments like cities, towns, and counties where a constitutional violation resulted from an official policy. Municipal agencies and departments, such as local school boards, can also be sued in a 1983 action. However, states cannot be sued under a 1983 claim.
Examples of state and local officials who can be sued are:
- Police officers and police chiefs
- Jail and prison guards
- Prison wardens
- Sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies
- Certain other public officials
You can also sue private individuals, but only if they had some connection with the government – in other words, if they acted under color of law. An example might be a doctor working for a state prison who mistreats an inmate.
What About Federal Officials?
Generally, federal officials are not subject to 1983 claims unless they conspired with state or local officials in some way. However, someone whose rights were violated solely by federal officials can maintain what’s called a Bivens claim (named after a Supreme Court case).
This type of lawsuit can be filed against federal officials, not federal government agencies, and is similar to a 1983 claim. There are some differences, however. For example, a Bivens claim is typically limited to constitutional violations, not violations of federal statutes
What Damages May Be Available In A 1983 Claim?
There are two types of remedies that a plaintiff can seek in a 1983 claim. The first is injunctive relief, which seeks to prevent future instances of the misconduct complained of. The other is monetary relief.
Monetary relief is intended to compensate a victim for such losses as:
- Medical bills and related costs
- Lost wages
- Lost earning capacity
- Pain and suffering
In some cases, you can also ask a court for punitive damages, which are intended to punish the responsible official for his or her conduct.
Are There Defenses to 1983 Claims?
Some state officials, such as judges, prosecutors, and state lawmakers, are absolutely immune from 1983 claims for monetary damages (but not claims seeking an injunction). Others have only qualified immunity. An official with qualified immunity can escape liability if the constitutional right he or she violated was not “clearly established under federal law.” Qualified immunity is not a defense against injunctive relief, so an official can be prevented from engaging in future civil rights abuses.
Contact Our Philadelphia 1983 (Civil Rights) Claims Attorney
1983 claims are complex, partly because of the many exceptions and limitations that have been carved out by statutes and court decisions. But as explained above, there are related lawsuits such as Bivens claims that can be brought in certain cases.
The most important thing you can do if your rights have been violated by a government official or entity is to seek legal counsel. That’s where Cooper Schall & Levy comes in. We fight for the rights of our clients and demand the justice they deserve. Call us today to learn more.