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Overview of Section 1983 Civil Rights Litigation


Over the last few days, I have had several people ask me to explain Section 1983 lawsuits. 

“Section 1983” refers to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which provides an individual the right to sue state government employees for civil rights/constitutional violations. Many of these cases involve violations of rights such as the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable searches and seizures), Fifth Amendment (self-incrimination), and the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment). 

The purpose of this blog is to provide a broad overview of the statute and potential hurdles to prevailing in these lawsuits. It does not address common constitutional violations, which will be addressed in later blogs. 

42 U.S.C. Section 1983

“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.”

Acting Under “Color of State Law”

The Statute requires that a person act under the “color of state law.” Federal courts have long indicated that the “color of state law” means power “possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.” Generally, this means that a state employee performing a governmental function is acting under the color of law. Further, in narrow circumstances, a non-governmental person may also be acting under the “color of state law”, implicating the protections of Section 1983. 

Rights “Secured by the Constitution and Laws”

Section 1983 is intended to protect against the violation of existing constitutional protections, and to provide a remedy for constitutional violations. Much of the Bill of Rights has been held to apply to state and local governments. One of the most common examples we see is violations of the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures, in the context of excessive force by police officers (police brutality).

Governmental Immunity

Unfortunately, public officials are granted either absolute or qualified immunity from lawsuits meaning that, despite violating a person’s constitutional rights, they cannot be sued. Many of these cases involve police officers, who are protected by qualified immunity. 

Generally, qualified immunity shields government officials from constitutional claims unless their conduct violated “clearly established” law. The Supreme Court of the United States has stated that qualified immunity protects “all by the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law”, creating a significant hurdle for litigants to overcome. 

To determine whether qualified immunity applies, a court will perform a two-prong analysis—1) whether a constitutional violation occurred; and 2) whether the law was “clearly established” as the time of the alleged constitutional violation. Courts are not required to undertake the analysis in that order. In fact, many tend to skip over determining whether a constitutional violation actually occurred, and instead decide first whether the law was “clearly established” at the time of the incident. This, of course, arguably has the impact of stalling the development of constitutional provisions/protections.

Statute of Limitations 

Section 1983 does not contain a statute of limitations, so courts will often look to the personal injury statute of limitations of where the incident occurred (2 years in the State of Georgia). 

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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