Civil Rights Act of 1871

Civil Rights Act of 1871

     The Civil Rights Act of 1871, formally known as, An Act to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other Purposes, provides that:


     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.  42 U.S.C. § 1983. 


     This Congressional Act, enacted on April 20, 1871, is a federal law promulgated in the aftermath of the Civil War to protect southern blacks from the Ku Klux Klan; hence it was then commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act.  Consequently, the purpose behind § 1983 is to provide a civil remedy for violation of a persons Constitutionally protected civil rights.


     The seminal case decided under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by the United States Supreme Court was Monroe v. Pape.  In Monroe, the Court held that a police officer was acting “under color of state law” even though his actions violated state law.  Through that ruling, the Court allowed liability to attach where a government official acted outside the scope of the authority granted to him by state law.  Since Monroe was decided, an extensive body of law has developed to govern section 1983 claims.  The following are the elements required to prevail in a Section 1983 Claim.




“Every person . . .”


     First and foremost, only “persons” under the statute are subject to liability.  A state is not a person subject to suit under section 1983, but a state officer can be sued in his official capacity for prospective or injunctive relief.  Municipalities and local governments are persons subject to suit for damages and prospective relief, but the United States Government is not.  Individual employees of federal, state and local government may be sued in their individual capacities for damages, declaratory or injunctive relief.  Furthermore, the law of the forum is to be applied in actions under section 1983 where the law of section 1983 provides no guidance.



“. . . who under color of [state law. . .”


     The definition of acting under the color of state law requires that the defendant have exercised power “possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law,”and such actions may result in liability even if the defendant abuses the position given to him by the state.  In addition, a private actor may also act under color of state law under certain circumstances; for example, where a private party or actor is contracted by a state agency or acts for the benefit of the state, that private actor may be found lible. 


“. . . subjects or causes to be subjected . . .”


     Although there is no state of mind requirement to prevail under a Section 1983 claim, there must be a causal connection between the defendant’s actions and the harm that results.  In order to hold a local government liable under section 1983, the Supreme Court has interpreted this causation element to require that the harm be the result of action on the part of the government entity that implemented or executed a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body’s officers, or the result of the entity’s custom and that entity’s policy or custom must have been the “moving force” behind the alleged deprivation.  For example, a local government is said to have an unconstitutional policy when it fails to train its employees, and the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to an obvious need for such training, and the failure train will likely result in the employee making a wrong decision.


     An unconstitutional policy may also exist if an isolated action of a government employee is dictated by a “final policymaker,” or if the authorized policymaker approves a subordinate’s decision and the basis for it.  However, a supervisor can only be liable in his individual capacity if he directly participates in causing the harm–relying upon respondeat superior is insufficient. The Supreme Court has rejected the notion that a plaintiff must meet a heightened pleading standard to state a claim against a municipality for an unconstitutional custom or policy.


“. . . [any person to] the deprivation of rights . . .”


     Section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights; rather, it provides a method for the vindication of rights elsewhere conferred in the United States Constitution and Laws.  Therefore, a plaintiff may prevail only if he can demonstrate that he was deprived of rights secured by the United States Constitution or federal statutes.


     The right most often used as a basis for a 1983 action is the United State Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause, which provides for both “substantive due process” and “procedural due process”.  To prevail on a “due process claim” a plaintiff must show: (1) that he possessed a constitutionally protected interest; and (2) that he was deprived of that interest without due process of law. 


     In addition to providing a remedy for deprivations of constitutional rights, section 1983 also makes actionable violations of federal “Laws.”  A statute is said to create a federal right only when “the provision in question is intended to benefit the putative plaintiff,” unless it reflects  a congressional preference for a certain kind of conduct rather than a binding obligation on the government unit, or unless the putative plaintiff’s interest is too vague and amorphous such that it is beyond the competence of the judiciary to enforce.


” . . . shall be liable . . . in an action at law, Suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . “


     State courts have concurrent jurisdiction with regard to section 1983 claims.  Nevertheless, the  exhaustion of administrative and judicial state remedies is not a prerequisite to a section 1983 action.  Also, the existence of concurrent state remedies is not a bar to a section 1983 action. The Supreme Court has declared that the basic purpose of a section 1983 damages award is to compensate the victims of official misconduct, and, consequently, there is no limit on actual damages if they can be proven.  Furthermore, punitive damages may also be awarded in addition to injunctive relief.




     States and state agencies are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity in federal court, but local governments have no immunity from damages flowing from their constitutional violations, and may not assert the good faith of its agents as a defense to liability.


     State or local government agents sued in their individual capacity are protected by qualified immunity, which shields individual officials who are performing discretionary activities unless their conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Generally, a government official is entitled to qualified immunity unless his “act is so obviously wrong, in the light of preexisting law, that only a plainly incompetent officer or one who was knowingly violating the law would have done such a thing.”

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