Section 1983 Litigation/Capacity of Claim: Individual Versus Official Capacity

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Section 1983 Litigation
Table of Contents
Introduction to § 1983 Litigation
The Statute
Historical Background
Nature of § 1983 Litigation
Right to Trial by Jury
Jury Instructions
Constitutional Claims Against Federal Officials: The Bivens Doctrine
Section 1983 Does Not Encompass Claims Against Federal Officials
The Bivens Claim for Relief
Law Governing Bivens Claims
Elements of Claim, Functional Role, Pleading, and Jurisdiction
Elements of the § 1983 Claim
Functional Role of § 1983
Pleading § 1983 Claims
Federal Court Jurisdiction
State Court Jurisdiction
Section 1983 Plaintiffs
Persons Entitled to Bring Suit Under § 1983
Constitutional Rights Enforceable Under § 1983
Due Process Rights: In General
Procedural Due Process
Substantive Due Process Claims
Use of Force by Government Officials: Sources of Constitutional Protection
Arrests and Searches
Malicious Prosecution Claims Under Fourth Amendment
Conditions-of-Confinement Claims Under Eighth Amendment
First Amendment Claims
Equal Protection “Class-of-One” Claims
Enforcement of Federal Statutes Under § 1983
Enforcement of Federal “Rights”
Specific Comprehensive Scheme Demonstrating Congressional Intent to Foreclose § 1983 Remedy
Current Supreme Court Approach
Enforcement of Federal Regulations Under § 1983
Color of State Law and State Action
State and Local Officials
State Action Tests
Section 1983 Defendants
State Defendants
Interplay of “Person” and Eleventh Amendment Issues
Municipal Defendants
State Versus Municipal Policy Maker
Departments, Offices, and Commissions
Capacity of Claim: Individual Versus Official Capacity
Municipal Liability
Fundamental Principles of § 1983 Municipal Liability
Officially Promulgated Policy
Municipal Policy Makers
Custom or Practice
Inadequate Training
Inadequate Hiring
Pleading Municipal Liability Claims
Liability of Supervisors
Relationship Between Individual and Municipal Liability
Los Angeles v. Heller
If Plaintiff Prevails on Personal-Capacity Claim
“Cost Allocation Scheme”
State Liability: The Eleventh Amendment
Relationship Between Suable § 1983 “Person” and Eleventh Amendment Immunity
Eleventh Amendment Protects State Even When Sued by Citizen of Defendant State
State Liability in § 1983 Actions
Personal-Capacity Claims
Municipal Liability; the Hybrid Entity Problem
Eleventh Amendment Waivers
Eleventh Amendment Appeals
Personal-Capacity Claims: Absolute Immunities
Absolute Versus Qualified Immunity: The Functional Approach
Judicial Immunity
Prosecutorial Immunity
Witness Immunity
Legislative Immunity
Personal Liability: Qualified Immunity
Who May Assert Qualified Immunity? Private Party State Actors
Clearly Established Federal Law
Procedural Aspects of Qualified Immunity
Exhaustion of State Remedies
State Judicial Remedies: Parratt-Hudson Doctrine
Preiser, Heck, and Beyond
State Administrative Remedies; PLRA
Notice of Claim
Preclusion Defenses
State Court Judgments
Administrative Res Judicata
Arbitration Decisions
Statute of Limitations
Limitations Period
Relation Back
Survivorship and Wrongful Death
Wrongful Death
Abstention Doctrines
Pullman Abstention; State Certification Procedure
Younger Abstention
Colorado River Abstention
Burford Abstention
Domestic Relations Doctrine
Tax Injunction Act
Monetary Relief
Nominal and Compensatory Damages
Punitive Damages
Release-Dismissal Agreements
Prison Litigation Reform Act
Attorneys’ Fees
Section 1988 Fee Litigation
Prevailing Parties
Computation of Fee Award: Lodestar Adjustment Method
Other Fee Issues
Model Instructions
Model Instruction 1: Section 1983—Elements of Claim—Action Under Color of State Law
Model Instruction 2: Fourth Amendment Excessive Force Claim
Model Instruction 3: Eighth Amendment Prisoner Excessive Force Claim
Model Instruction 4: Fourth Amendment False Arrest Claim
Model Instruction 5: Municipal Liability—General Instruction
Model Instruction 6: Municipal Liability—Inadequate Training or Supervision
Model Instruction 7: Compensatory Damages
Model Instruction 8: Punitive Damages

A claim against a state or municipal official in her official capacity is treated as a claim against the entity itself.[1] In Kentucky v. Graham,[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4] By contrast, a personal-capacity (or individual-capacity) claim seeks monetary recovery payable out of the responsible official’s personal finances,[5] and thus is not redundant or duplicative of a claim against a governmental entity.[6]

In Hafer v. Melo,[7] the Supreme Court outlined the distinctions between personal-capacity and official-capacity claims:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”[8]
  4. Personal-capacity defendants may assert common-law immunity defenses—that is, either an absolute or qualified immunity.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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]

  1. 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).
  2. 473 U.S. 159 (1985).
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991).
  6. 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.
  7. 502 U.S. 21 (1991).
  8. Id. (quoting Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985)).
  9. See infra Personal-Capacity Claims: Absolute Immunities and Personal Liability: Qualified Immunity.
  10. 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.”).
  11. 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).