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Damages in Section 1983 Claims

As discussed in prior blogs, Section 1983 is the most often used vehicle to bring civil rights claims against government officials. Section 1983 allows an individual to bring a claim for money damages against government officials who violate their constitutional rights. Assuming the plaintiff is able to overcome all the hurdles required to get their case before a jury (i.e. overcoming the defense of qualified immunity), plaintiffs must be prepared to adequately show and prove their “damages” in order to maximize their recovery.

Compensatory Damages

When Section 1983 plaintiffs seek damages for constitutional violations, they generally seek compensatory damages. Compensatory damages include monetary losses such as lost wages, damaged property, and future medical expenses. Slicker v. Jackson, 215 F.3d 1225, 1231 (11th Cir. 2000). Damages may also be awarded based on “physical pain and suffering” and “demonstrated […] impairment of reputation[] and personal humiliation.” Ibid.

These compensatory damages, however, can be awarded only based on actual injuries caused by the defendant(s) and cannot be presumed or based on the abstract value of the constitutional rights that the defendant violated. Id. at 1229. Accordingly, a plaintiff must provide proof of a specific, actual injury caused by the defendant’s conduct. If a plaintiff cannot make that showing, he or she is not entitled to compensatory damages. Kelly v. Curtis, 21 F.3d 1544, 1557 (11th Cir. 1994). 

Nominal Damages

When plaintiffs are unable to show and prove actual damages, they may nonetheless receive an award for “nominal damages.” The Supreme Court has held that Section 1983 plaintiffs are entitled only to receive nominal damages, not to exceed one dollar, unless her or she can prove actual damages. Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247 (1978). 

Punitive Damages

The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer, and such damages may be awarded in Section 1983 claims even if a plaintiff cannot show actual damages. In order to receive punitive damages, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant’s conduct was “motivated by evil motive or intent” or involved “reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.” Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56 (1983). Punitive damages, however, are not recoverable against governmental entities (i.e. the relevant city or county) – only against individual defendants for their respective conduct. 

Attorney’s Fees Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b)

The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fee Awards Act of 1976 also allows for the award of reasonable attorney’s fees to the “prevailing party” in cases brought under Section 1983. This provision applies whether or not the plaintiff can prove actual damages. The purpose of the statute is to provide an incentive for attorneys to enforce federal rights under Section 1983. 

Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice and does not establish any kind of attorney-client relationship.

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