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What are the elements of a section 1983 claim?

In our recent webinar, Anatomy of a Section 1983 Claim, we discussed the federal statute known as Section 1983 that allows people to sue certain government entities and its employees for violations of their civil rights (42 U.S.C. § 1983). While Section 1983 creates a remedy for seeking redress for the violation of a federally protected right, it does not create any rights itself. Therefore, simply alleging a violation of a federal law is not enough to give rise to a Section 1983 claim. Rather, plaintiff must allege that a specific right that arises from federal law (whether constitutional or statutory) has been violated.

While claims brought under Section 1983 can take many different forms – such as a claim of excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment or the denial of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment – all Section 1983 claims must allege the following:

  • 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 the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

Who can be a defendant in a Section 1983 action?

Who can be properly named as a defendant in the action or who is considered a “person” under the statute? While this may seem like a straightforward issue, it is not always the case.

For example, employees and agents of local governments can be sued in both their personal and official capacity, but employees of a state can only be sued personally. In addition, local and municipal governments can be named as defendants, but neither a state nor the federal government can be sued under Section 1983. Private individuals can also be sued under Section 1983, but they must be acting on behalf of a state or local government (referred to as “acting under color of law”).

Does “acting under color of law” simply mean employed by the government?

The short answer is no. A person does not need to be an employee to be “acting under color of law.” However, simply because a person is an employee of a municipality does not automatically mean they were acting under color of law either.

An action is “under the color of law” when the person is exercising the authority given to them by the government and the action is taken with the appearance that the government authorized it, even if they are abusing that authority.

What types of violations give rise to a Section 1983 claim?

While Section 1983 enables a plaintiff to bring an action for a violation of their federally protected rights, it does not create any right itself. What does this mean in practice? In short, to have an actionable claim under Section 1983 the plaintiff must allege more than just a violation of federal law, they must allege the violation of a clearly established right. The most common types of Section 1983 cases arise out of violations of the various rights guaranteed by the Constitution, such as:

  • First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly, petition, and religion;
  • Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, including the use of excessive force during an arrest and detention;
  • Fifth Amendment protections against the government taking private property without paying for it;
  • Eighth Amendment protections against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment; and
  • Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive and procedural due process, as well as equal protection claims.

For complete access to our Section 1983 Toolkit and other resources and guidance on defending Section 1983 claims, start your free trial of Practical Law today.

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