Section 1983 Litigation/Capacity of Claim: Individual Versus Official Capacity
A claim against a state or municipal official in her official capacity is treated as a claim against the entity itself. In Kentucky v. Graham, the Supreme Court stated that an official capacity claim is simply “‘another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.’ As long as the government entity receives notice and an opportunity to respond, an official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.” Therefore, when a § 1983 complaint asserts a claim against a municipal entity and municipal official in her official capacity, federal district courts routinely dismiss the official capacity claim as duplicative or redundant. By contrast, a personal-capacity (or individual-capacity) claim seeks monetary recovery payable out of the responsible official’s personal finances, and thus is not redundant or duplicative of a claim against a governmental entity.
In Hafer v. Melo, the Supreme Court outlined the distinctions between personal-capacity and official-capacity claims:
- Because an official-capacity claim against an official is tantamount to a claim against a governmental entity, and because there is no respondeat superior liability under § 1983, in official capacity suits the plaintiff must show that enforcement of the entity’s policy or custom caused the violation of the plaintiff’s federally protected right.
- In official capacity suits the defendant may assert only those immunities the entity possesses, such as the states’ Eleventh Amendment immunity and municipalities’ immunity from punitive damages.
- Liability may be imposed against defendants in personal-capacity suits even if the violation of the plaintiff’s federally protected right was not attributable to the enforcement of a governmental policy or practice.“[T]o establish personal liability in a § 1983 action, it is enough to show that the official, acting under color of state law, caused the deprivation of a federal right.”
- Personal-capacity defendants may assert common-law immunity defenses—that is, either an absolute or qualified immunity.
The Seventh Circuit held that when a municipal official is sued in her personal capacity, the municipality is not an indispensable party, even if it may be responsible for a judgment against the official.
The § 1983 complaint should clearly specify the capacity (or capacities) in which the defendant is sued. Unfortunately, many § 1983 complaints fail to do so. When the capacity of claim is ambiguous, most courts look to the “course of proceedings” to determine the issue. For example, when a municipal official is sued under § 1983, assertion of a claim for punitive damages is a strong indicator that the claim was asserted against the official in his personal capacity, because municipalities are immune from punitive damages under § 1983. By the same token, when the defendant/official asserts an absolute or qualified immunity as a defense, this strongly indicates that the claim was asserted against the official personally because these defenses are available only against personal-capacity claims.
References[edit | edit source]
- Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985); Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 471–72 (1985); Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 n.55 (1978); Abusaid v. Hillsborough Cnty. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, 405 F.3d 1298, 1302 n.3 (11th Cir. 2005).
- 473 U.S. 159 (1985).
- Id. at 165–66 (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 690 n.55 (1978)). See, e.g., Nivens v. Gilchrist, 444 F.3d 237, 249 (4th Cir. 2006) (claim against North Carolina district attorney in official capacity considered claim against state for purpose of Eleventh Amendment).
- See, e.g., Cotton v. District of Columbia, 421 F. Supp. 2d 83, 86 (D.D.C. 2006); Baines v. Masiello, 288 F. Supp. 2d 376, 384 (W.D.N.Y. 2003); McCachren v. Blacklick Valley Sch. Dist., 217 F. Supp. 2d 594, 599 (W.D. Pa. 2002).
- Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991).
- The fact that a governmental entity agreed to indemnify an official for monetary liability in her official capacity does not convert the personal-capacity claim into an official-capacity claim. See infra Personal-Capacity Claims: Absolute Immunities.
- 502 U.S. 21 (1991).
- Id. (quoting Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985)).
- See infra Personal-Capacity Claims: Absolute Immunities and Personal Liability: Qualified Immunity.
- Askew v. Sheriff of Cooks Cnty., 568 F.3d 632, 637 (7th Cir. 2009) (“For the present, the County does not become an ‘indispensable’ party just because it may need to indemnify the Sheriff in the future, any more than an insurance company must be included as a defendant in a suit against its insured.”).
- See, e.g., Moore v. City of Harriman, 272 F.3d 769, 772–73 (6th Cir. 2001); Biggs v. Meadows, 66 F.3d 56, 59–60 (4th Cir. 1995). Cf. Nix v. Norman, 879 F.2d 429, 431 (8th Cir. 1989).