Section 1983 Litigation/Section 1983 Defendants
Section 1983 authorizes assertion of a claim for relief against a “person” who acted under color of state law. A suable § 1983 “person” encompasses state and local officials sued in their personal capacities, municipal entities, and municipal officials sued in an official capacity; and private parties engaged in state action, but not states and state entities.
State Defendants[edit | edit source]
In Will v. Michigan Department of State Police, the Supreme Court held that a suable “person” under § 1983 does not include a state, a state agency, or a state official sued in her official capacity for damages. However, the Court ruled that a state official sued in an official capacity is a “person” for purposes of § 1983 when sued for prospective relief. In Hafer v. Melo, the Court held that a state official sued for damages in her personal capacity is a person under § 1983, even though the claim for relief arose out of the official’s official responsibilities.
The Court’s interpretation of “suable § 1983 person” in Will was heavily influenced by the scope of sovereign immunity enjoyed by the states under the Eleventh Amendment. The Court found that § 1983 was not “intended to disregard the well established [Eleventh Amendment] immunity of a State from being sued without its consent.” Further, Will’s bifurcated definition of “person,” barring claims for monetary relief against states, state agencies and state officials in their official capacities, while allowing claims for prospective relief against state officials in their official capacities, is based upon, and consistent with, Eleventh Amendment decisional law. The Supreme Court has indicated that the Will “no person” defense is not waivable.
Interplay of “Person” and Eleventh Amendment Issues[edit | edit source]
If a state defendant asserts that it is “not a person” for the purposes of § 1983, along with an Eleventh Amendment defense, the court should first address the “person” defense. In Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States, a federal court qui tam action under the federal False Claims Act against the state of Vermont, Vermont argued that (1) it was not a “person” subject to suit under the act, and (2) the suit was barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that when the defendant asserts both “person” and Eleventh Amendment defenses, the court should first determine the “person” issue. The Court said that although questions of jurisdiction are usually given “priority,” it has routinely first addressed whether the federal statute “itself permits the cause of action it creates to be asserted against States” before ruling on the Eleventh Amendment defense. The statutory question is “logically antecedent” to the Eleventh Amendment defense, and “there is no realistic possibility that addressing the statutory question will expand the Court’s power beyond the limits that the jurisdictional restriction has imposed.” The Court observed that the “person” and Eleventh Amendment issues are closely related to each other: “The ultimate issue in the statutory inquiry is whether States can be sued under this statute; and the ultimate issue in the Eleventh Amendment inquiry is whether unconsenting States can be sued under this statute.” Relying in part upon the holding in Will, that states are not “persons” within the meaning of § 1983, the Court in Vermont Agency held that states are not also not “persons” within the meaning of the False Claims Act. In light of this determination, the Court in Vermont Agency found no need to rule on the Eleventh Amendment defense.
The Seventh Circuit, in Power v. Summers, held that the Supreme Court’s decision in Vermont Agency applies to § 1983 actions. “Since section 1983 does not authorize suits against states (states not being ‘persons’ within the statute’s meaning), the district court should have dismissed the official-capacity claims before addressing the Eleventh Amendment defense, the sequence ordained by Vermont Agency . . . .”
Because Will’s definition of suable § 1983 “person” was influenced by, and is consistent with, the scope of the Eleventh Amendment, a federal court that follows the sequence set forth in Vermont Agency and Power should find it unnecessary to reach the Eleventh Amendment issue. Nevertheless, numerous lower federal court rulings are based solely upon the Eleventh Amendment.
In some cases, this phenomenon undoubtedly reflects the fact that the defendant raised an Eleventh Amendment defense and failed to assert the “no-person” defense. In any case, because the Eleventh Amendment defense is adjudicated so frequently in § 1983 actions, it is analyzed infra State Liability: The Eleventh Amendment.
Municipal Defendants[edit | edit source]
In Monell v. Department of Social Services, the Supreme Court held that municipalities and municipal officials sued in an official capacity are suable § 1983 persons. In Will v. Michigan Department of State Police, the Court carefully distinguished municipal liability from state liability. A claim against a municipal official in her official capacity is tantamount to a suit against the municipal entity. Thus when claims are asserted against both the municipal entity and a municipal official in her official capacity, federal courts consistently dismiss the official capacity claim as “redundant” to the municipal-entity claim.
State Versus Municipal Policy Maker[edit | edit source]
Because Supreme Court decisional law defining suable § 1983 person distinguishes between state liability and municipal liability, federal courts sometimes have to decide whether an official is a state, as opposed to municipal, policy maker in a particular subject area, or on a particular issue. The resolution of this issue can determine whether a particular defendant is suable under § 1983 because, as discussed above, municipal entities are suable § 1983 persons while state entities are not. In addition, Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity protects state entities from federal court liability but provides no protection for municipal entities.
In McMillian v. Monroe County, the Supreme Court held that whether an official is a state or municipal policy maker is “dependent on an analysis of state law.” The Court recognized that a particular official (e.g., the county sheriff) may be considered a state official in one state and a municipal official in another state. Furthermore, an official may be considered a state official for the purpose of one governmental function and a municipal official for the purpose of another governmental function. For example, district attorneys are normally considered state officials when prosecuting crimes, but are considered municipal officials when carrying out their administrative duties, such as training staff.
Departments, Offices, and Commissions[edit | edit source]
In § 1983 actions, municipal departments, offices, and commissioners are normally not considered suable entities. This is a matter of form rather than substance. It means simply that instead of naming, for example, the “police department” as a party defendant, the plaintiff must name as defendant the municipality (city, town, or village) of which the department is a part.
References[edit | edit source]
- 491 U.S. 58 (1989).
- Id. at 71 n.10.
- 502 U.S. 21 (1991).
- Will, 491 U.S. at 66–68. See also infra State Liability: The Eleventh Amendment.
- Id. at 67 (footnote omitted).
- Id. at 71 n.10. See infra State Liability: The Eleventh Amendment.
- Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 69 (1997). Cf. Settles v. U.S. Parole Comm’n, 429 F.3d 1098, 1104 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (“by failing to raise . . . in the district court . . . that it is not a ‘person’ under § 1983, the Commission” waived issue).
- 529 U.S. 765 (2000).
- Id. at 779.
- 226 F.3d 815 (7th Cir. 2000).
- Id. at 818 (citations omitted).
- See, e.g., Fontana v. Alpine Cnty., 750 F. Supp. 2d 1148, 1151 (E.D. Cal. 2010). (“States and state officials acting in their official capacities are immune from § 1983 liability because they are not considered ‘persons’ under the statute.”) (citing Will, 491 U.S. at 71).
- See, e.g., Harrison v. Michigan, 722 F.3d 768, 771 (6th Cir. 2013); GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc. v. Georgia, 687 F.3d 1244, 1254 (11th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 856 (2013); Colon-Rivera v. Asociacion de Suscripcion, 451 F. App’x 5, 8 (1st Cir. 2011); McMillan v. N.Y. State Bd. of Elections, 449 F. App’x 79, 80 (2d Cir. 2011); Grover-Tsimi v. Minnesota, 449 F. App’x 529, 530 (8th Cir. 2011); Atkin v. Johnson, 432 F. App’x 47, 48 (3d Cir. 2011); Thomas v. Tex. Dep’t of Family & Protective Servs., 427 F. App’x 309, 312–13 (5th Cir. 2011); Brait Builders Corp. v. Commonwealth of Mass., Div. of Capital Asset Mgmt., 644 F.3d 5, 10–12 (1st Cir. 2011); Baker v. James T. Vaughn Corr. Ctr., 425 F. App’x 83, 84 (3d Cir. 2011); Keisling v. Renn, 425 F. App’x 106, 109 (3d Cir. 2011); Donnelly v. TRL, Inc., 420 F. App’x 126, 129 (3d Cir. 2010); Talbert v. Judiciary of N.J., 420 F. App’x 140, 141 (3d Cir. 2011); Fournerat v. Wis. Law Review, 420 F. App’x 816, 830 (10th Cir. 2011); Harris v. McSwain, 417 F. App’x 594, 595 (8th Cir. 2011); Ross v. Tex. Educ. Agency, 409 F. App’x 765, 768–69 (5th Cir. 2011); 281 Care Comm. v. Arneson, 638 F.3d 621, 631–33 (8th Cir. 2011); Nails v. Penn. Dep’t of Transp., 414 F. App’x 452, 455 (3d Cir. 2011); Lee Testing & Eng’g Inc. v. Ohio Dep’t of Transp., 855 F. Supp. 2d 722, 725–27 (S.D. Ohio 2012); Canman v. Bonilla, 778 F. Supp. 2d 179, 184 (D.P.R. 2011); Replay, Inc. v. Sec’y of Treasury of P.R., 778 F. Supp. 2d 207, 213–14 (D.P.R. 2011); Smiley v. Ala. Dep’t of Transp., 778 F. Supp. 2d 1283, 1298 (M.D. Ala. 2011); Draper v. Darby Twp. Police Dep’t, 777 F. Supp. 2d 850, 853–54 (E.D. Pa. 2011); Holland v. Bramble, 775 F. Supp. 2d 748, 750 (D. Del. 2011); Fennell v. Rodgers, 762 F. Supp. 2d 727, 731–32 (D. Del. 2011); Fishman v. Daines, 743 F. Supp. 2d 127, 136–39 (E.D.N.Y. 2010); Reynolds v. Giuliani, 118 F. Supp. 2d 352, 381–82 (S.D.N.Y. 2000); Cramer v. Chiles, 33 F. Supp. 2d 1342, 1350 (S.D. Fla. 1999).
- 436 U.S. 658 (1978).
- Id. at 690. District of Columbia: “The District of Columbia is a municipality for the purpose of § 1983.” People for Ethical Treatment of Animals v. Gittens, 396 F.3d 416, 425 (D.C. Cir. 2005).
- 491 U.S. 58 (1989).
- Id. at 67 n.7. See infra Capacity of Claim: Individual Versus Official Capacity.
- See, e.g., Anemone v. Metro. Transp. Auth., 410 F. Supp. 2d 255, 264 n.2 (S.D.N.Y. 2006); Wilhelm v. City of Calumet City, 409 F. Supp. 2d 991, 994 n.1 (N.D. Ill. 2006); Robinson v. District of Columbia, 403 F. Supp. 2d 39, 49 (D.D.C. 2005).
- See infra State Liability: The Eleventh Amendment.
- 520 U.S. 781 (1997).
- Id. at 786.
- Id. at 795.
- Id. at 785–86.
- Id. See, e.g., Goldstein v. City of Long Beach, 715 F.3d 750 (9th Cir. 2013) (California district attorney acts as local policy maker in establishing administrative policies), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 906 (2014).
- See, e.g., Best v. City of Portland, 554 F.3d 698 n.* (7th Cir. 2009) (police department not suable entity under § 1983); Dean v. Barber, 951 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1992) (“[S]heriffs departments and police departments are not usually considered legal entities subject to suit.”).