Section 1983 Litigation/Statute of Limitations

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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

Limitations Period[edit | edit source]

There is no federal statute of limitations for § 1983 claims. When federal law is silent on an issue in a federal court § 1983 action, 42 U.S.C. § 1988(a) requires the federal court to borrow state law on the issue, provided it is consistent with the policies underlying § 1983.[1] Therefore, § 1988(a) requires federal courts to borrow a state’s limitations period. In Wilson v. Garcia,[2] the Supreme Court held that the federal court should borrow the state’s general limitations period for personal injury actions, as long as the period is not inconsistent with the policies of § 1983. This means that the governing limitations period for federal § 1983 actions may differ from state to state. A state’s unduly short limitations period, e.g., six months, is inconsistent with the policies of § 1983.[3] “[W]here state law provides multiple statutes of limitations for personal injury actions, courts . . . should borrow the general or residual statute for personal injury actions.”[4]

Relation Back[edit | edit source]

Whether an amended complaint “relates back” to the filing of the original complaint for limitations purposes is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c). Under Rule 15(c), an amended complaint against the same defendants named in the original complaint will relate back to the filing of the original complaint if the claim in the amended complaint arose out of the same conduct or transaction in the original complaint.[5] However, if an amended complaint “changes” the party defendant, (1) the amended complaint will relate back to the filing of the original complaint if the amended complaint arose out of the same conduct as the original complaint; (2) the newly named defendant, within the period for service of the summons and complaint, received notice of the institution of the action that will avoid prejudice in defending the action; and (3) the newly named defendant “knew or should have known that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party, the action would have been brought against the party.”[6] Rule 15(c) provides that when, as in § 1983 actions, state law governs the limitations period, a state law “relation back” doctrine that is more forgiving than Rule 15(c)’s “relation back” doctrine will govern the issue.[7]

In Krupski v. Costa Cruciere,[8] a non-§ 1983 case, the Supreme Court rendered an important decision interpreting the Rule 15(c) requirement for “relation back” purposes. The Court held that relation back under Rule 15(c) depends on whether the newly added defendant knew or should have known that, but for the plaintiff’s mistake, the action would have been brought against it originally.[9] The lower court erred in holding that Rule 15(c) was not satisfied because the plaintiff knew, or should have known, of the proper defendant before filing her original complaint; and the plaintiff delayed in amending the complaint. The Court held “that relation back under Rule 15(c)(1)(C) depends on what the [newly named defendant] knew or should have known, not on the amending [plaintiff’s] knowledge or its timeliness in seeking to amend the pleading.”[10]

Rule 15(c)(1)(C)(ii) asks what the prospective defendant knew or should have known during the Rule 4(m) period [for service of the summons and complaint], not what the plaintiff knew or should have known at the time of filing her original complaint. Information in the plaintiff’s possession is relevant only if it bears on the defendant’s understanding of whether the plaintiff made a mistake regarding the proper party’s identity. For purposes of that inquiry, it would be error to conflate knowledge of a party’s existence with the absence of mistake.[11]

The Court said that a “mistake” is an “error, misconception, or misunderstanding; an erroneous belief.”[12] The fact that “a plaintiff knows of a party’s existence does not preclude her from making a mistake with respect to that party’s identity.”[13] For example, the plaintiff may have known of A’s identity, but was mistaken factually of her role in the incident in question, or whether A was legally responsible for the incident in question. Nor is the reasonableness of the plaintiff’s mistake an issue under Rule 15.[14] The Court further ruled that the fact that the plaintiff unreasonably delayed in filing the amended complaint is irrelevant to the relation back inquiry. Therefore, the plaintiffs’ lack of diligence cannot justify denial of relation back.

Most federal courts hold that an amendment of a complaint substituting a John Doe defendant with the names of the actual officers does not relate back to the filing of the original complaint.[15] The rationale of these decisions is that lack of knowledge about the names of the alleged wrongdoers/defendants is not a “mistake” within the meaning of Rule 15(c).[16]

Accrual[edit | edit source]

Unlike the selection of the limitations period, which is determined by reference to state law, the accrual of a § 1983 claim is a question of federal law.[17] Section 1983 claims generally accrue when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury, which is the basis of her claim.[18] In applying this standard, courts seek to determine “what event should have alerted the typical lay person to protect his or her rights.”[19] In Wallace v. Kato,[20] the Supreme Court stated that a § 1983 claim accrues when the plaintiff has “a complete and present cause of action.”[21] It is unclear whether this is the same as the “know or should know of the injury” standard. Post-Wallace, the courts of appeals have continued to apply the “knew or reasonably should have known” accrual rule.[22] In Heck v. Humphrey,[23] the Court held that a § 1983 “cause of action for damages attributable to an unconstitutional conviction or sentence does not accrue until the conviction or sentence has been invalidated.”[24]

The determination of the proper accrual date is not always obvious, especially when the Heck doctrine may be implicated. In Wallace, the Court held that the § 1983 plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment challenge to his warrantless arrest accrued when legal process issued, i.e., when he appeared before the examining magistrate judge and was bound over for trial.

Because there were a number of possible accrual dates in Wallace, it is necessary to pay especially close attention to the sequence of events in that case. In January 1994, the Chicago police questioned Andre Wallace, then fifteen years of age, about a recent homicide. After an all-night interrogation lasting into the early morning hours, Wallace waived his Miranda rights and confessed to the murder. He was arrested (without an arrest warrant) sometime that day. Subsequently—we are not told exactly when—he appeared before the examining magistrate judge and was bound over for trial. If the state wants to hold a suspect who was subject to a warrantless arrest, the Fourth Amendment requires a probable cause determination from a magistrate judge within a reasonable time, and forty-eight hours after the arrest is a presumptively reasonable time.[25]

Prior to trial, Wallace’s defense attorney unsuccessfully sought to suppress Wallace’s confession and other statements he gave the police. Wallace was convicted of murder. But in 2001, the conviction was reversed on appeal on the ground that Wallace was arrested without probable cause, and his incriminating statements were the product of the illegal arrest. In 2001, the state appeals court ordered a new trial, but the next year the prosecutors dropped the charges against Wallace, and he was released.

In 2003, seven years after his arrest but only a year after the charges were dropped, Wallace filed a federal court § 1983 action asserting, inter alia, a claim for damages against several Chicago police officers based on his illegal arrest. The parties agreed that the governing limitations period was the Illinois two-year personal injury period. But they sharply disagreed over when the limitations period began to run, i.e., when Wallace’s § 1983 claim accrued. There were several possible accrual dates:

  1. The date Wallace was arrested in 1994. This would render the § 1983 claim untimely.
  2. The date Wallace appeared before the magistrate judge. This, too, would render the § 1983 action untimely because more than two years elapsed between that date and the filing of the § 1983 suit, “even leaving out of the count the period before [Wallace] reached his majority.”[26]
  3. The date (August 31, 2001) the appellate court reversed Wallace’s conviction and remanded for a new trial, which would render the § 1983 claim timely.
  4. The date (April 10, 2002) when prosecutors dropped the charges against Wallace, which also would have rendered the § 1983 suit timely.

The Court held that Wallace’s § 1983 wrongful arrest claim accrued on the date he appeared before the magistrate judge and was bound over for trial, rendering the § 1983 action untimely. Although the § 1983 claim was premised upon a violation of Fourth Amendment rights, the Supreme Court relied heavily on common-law concepts governing false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution to determine the proper accrual date.

The Court said that the plaintiff “could have filed suit as soon as the alleged wrongful arrest occurred, subjecting him to the harm of involuntary detention.”[27] Since the plaintiff had a “complete” cause of action on the date of his arrest, the limitations period “would normally commence to run from that date.”[28] There was a “refinement,” however, stemming from the common law’s treatment of false arrest and false imprisonment. These two torts overlap in the sense that false arrest is a “species” of false imprisonment; every confinement is an imprisonment. The Court found that the closest common-law analogy to Wallace’s § 1983 warrantless arrest/Fourth Amendment claim was false imprisonment based on “detention without legal process.”[29] The common-law rule is that such a claim for relief accrues when the false imprisonment comes to an end. “Since false imprisonment consists of detention without legal process, a false imprisonment claim accrues when the victim becomes held pursuant to such process—when he is bound over by a magistrate or arraigned on charges.”[30] The claim for relief accrues at this time even though the claim could have been filed at the earlier time of the arrest. Furthermore, the claim accrues at this time even “assuming . . . that all damages for detention pursuant to legal process could be regarded as consequential damages attributable to the unlawful arrest. . . .”[31]

Under common law, after legal process is issued, any damages for unlawful detention would be based not on false arrest but on malicious prosecution. Malicious prosecution “remedies detention accompanied, not by absence of legal process, but by wrongful institution of legal process.”[32] The Court rejected Wallace’s argument that his false imprisonment ended and his claim accrued when the state dropped the criminal charges against him and he was released from custody. Rather, the false imprisonment ended much earlier, when legal process was issued against Wallace, i.e., when he appeared before the examining magistrate judge. Holding firm to the common-law rule, the Court also rejected Wallace’s argument that his release from custody should be the proper accrual date because, he argued, the unconstitutional arrest “set the wheels in motion,” leading to the coerced confession, conviction, and incarceration.

Wallace argued, again in vain, that under the Heck doctrine his § 1983 claim could not accrue until the state dropped the criminal charges against him. The Supreme Court found the Heck doctrine inapplicable because on the date Wallace was held pursuant to legal process, there was no criminal conviction that the § 1983 cause of action could impugn. Moreover, the Court held that the Heck doctrine does not extend to possible future convictions. The “impracticability” of applying Heck to future convictions is “obvious,” namely, it would invite speculation whether there will be a conviction and, if so, whether the pending federal § 1983 action would impugn the conviction.[33]

When, as in Wallace, there is more than one plausible accrual date, the Supreme Court appears inclined to pick the earlier date.[34] This has also been true in § 1983 public employment cases. In employment termination cases, for example, the Supreme Court held that the § 1983 claim accrues when the employee is notified of the termination, not when the termination became effective.[35]

Federal courts have generally been reluctant to apply what is known as the “continuing violation” doctrine in § 1983 actions.[36] In National Railroad Passengers Corp. v. Morgan,[37] a Title VII action, the Supreme Court held that a discrete act, such as employment termination, failure to promote, denial of transfer, refusal to hire, or a retaliatory adverse employment decision, is a separate unlawful employment practice for accrual purposes. The Court ruled that the continuing violation doctrine does not apply to these discrete acts merely because they are plausibly or sufficiently related to each other. It distinguished these claims from racial or sexual “hostile environment” claims, which involve repeated conduct and the cumulative effect of continued acts. These claims are not time-barred if the acts are part of the same unlawful employment practice, and at least one act falls within the governing limitations period. The courts of appeals have applied Morgan to § 1983 actions.[38]

Tolling[edit | edit source]

In Wallace v. Kato,[39] the Supreme Court stated that in § 1983 suits it has “generally referred to state law for tolling rules . . . . ”[40] The Court in Wallace found that Illinois tolling law did not provide for tolling during the pendency of the criminal proceeding. It also rejected the dissent’s position that the limitations period should be equitably tolled during the pendency of the criminal proceedings, and during any period in which the criminal defendant challenges the conviction in state court on the same basis as that underlying the § 1983 suit.[41] The majority reminded the dissent that “[e]quitable tolling is a rare remedy to be applied in unusual circumstances, not a cure-all for an entirely common state of affairs.”[42] In other words, it is fairly common for a § 1983 action to relate to pending criminal proceedings and the mere fact that it does will not justify application of equitable tolling.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Because there is no federal survivorship law for § 1983 claims, § 1988(a) requires federal courts to borrow state survivorship policy, so long as the state policy is not inconsistent with the policies of § 1983. See infra Chapter 20. However, § 1988(a) does not allow federal courts to incorporate an entire state cause of action into the § 1983 action. Moor v. Cnty. of Alameda, 411 U.S. 693, 703–04 (1973) (“we do not believe that section [1988], without more, was meant to authorize the wholesale importation into federal law of state causes of action”); Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 701 n.66 (1978) (“42 U.S.C. § 1988 cannot be used to create a federal cause of action where § 1983 does not otherwise provide one”).
  2. 471 U.S. 261 (1985).
  3. See Burnett v. Grattan, 468 U.S. 42, 48–50 (1984).
  4. Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 236 (1989). A state-by-state table of limitations periods in § 1983 actions is set forth in 1B Martin A. Schwartz, Section 1983 Litigation: Claims and Defenses § 12.02[B] (4th ed. 2014). Even when a state, like Illinois, has a specific limitations period for claimed failures to protect from childhood sexual abuse, the governing § 1983 limitations period is the state’s general personal injury period. Woods v. Ill. Dep’t of Children & Family Servs., 710 F.3d 762 (7th Cir. 2013) (Illinois two-year limitations period, not Illinois Childhood Sexual Abuse Act twenty-year period, governs § 1983 actions in Illinois).
  5. “Congress did not intend Rule 15(c) be so broad as to allow an amended pleading to add an entirely new claim based on a different set of facts.” Dean v. United States, 278 F.3d 1218, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002).
  6. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(3)(B).
  7. See Advisory Committee note to 1991 amendment to Fed. R. Civ. P. 15. See, e.g., Hogan v. Fischer, 738 F.3d 509 (2d Cir. 2013).
  8. 130 S. Ct. 2485 (2010).
  9. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(1)(ii)(C) (emphasis added).
  10. Krupski, 130 S. Ct. at 2490.
  11. Id. at 2493–94.
  12. Id. at 2494 (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1092 (9th ed. 2009)).
  13. Id.
  14. The Court in Krupski found that its reading of Rule 15(c)(1)(C) was consistent with Congress’s historical reason for adding that rule in 1966. Individuals filing suits pertaining to Social Security benefits often failed to name as a party defendant the party identified in the statute as the proper defendant—the current secretary of what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—and named instead the United States, or the Department of HEW, or the nonexistent “Federal Security Administration,” or a recently retired secretary. By the time these plaintiffs discovered their mistakes, the limitations period may have expired.
  15. Garrett v. Fleming, 362 F.3d 692, 696–97 (10th Cir. 2004); Wayne v. Jarvis, 197 F.3d 1098, 1102–04 (11th Cir. 1999), cert. denied, 529 U.S. 1115 (2000); Jacobsen v. Osborne, 133 F.3d 315, 320 (5th Cir. 1998); Cox v. Treadway, 75 F.3d 230, 240 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 821 (1996); Barrow v. Wethersfield Police Dep’t, 66 F.3d 466, 468 (2d Cir. 1995), modified, 74 F.3d 1366 (2d Cir. 1996); Worthington v. Wilson, 8 F.3d 1253, 1256–57 (7th Cir. 1993).
  16. But see, e.g., Hogan v. Fischer, 738 F.3d 509, 518 (2d Cir. 2013) (relation back applied under “more forgiving” New York state law); Singletary v. Pa. Dep’t of Corr., 266 F.3d 186, 194–95 (3d Cir. 2001) (rejecting lack-of-mistake rationale, but denying relation back because newly named official had not received notice of action within requisite time period); see also Solivan v. Dart, 897 F. Supp. 2d 694, 701–02 (N.D. Ill. 2012) (relying on Krupski v. Costa Crociere S.p.A., 130 S. Ct. 2485 (2010)).
  17. Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 388 (2007).
  18. See, e.g., Calero-Colon v. Betancourt-Lebron, 68 F.3d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1995); Harris v. Hegmann, 198 F.3d 153, 157 (5th Cir. 1999).
  19. Dixon v. Anderson, 928 F.2d 212, 215 (6th Cir. 1991). See also Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 391 (2007) (claim accrues when wrongful act results in damages even if full extent of damages is not then known or predictable); United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 121–22 (1979) (non-§ 1983) (patient’s medical malpractice claim accrued when he was “aware of his injury and its cause”; accrual should not be further delayed until plaintiff learns of his legal rights regarding claim).
  20. 549 U.S. 384 (2007).
  21. Id. at 388 (quoting Bay Area Laundry & Dry Cleaning Pension Trust Fund v. Ferbar Corp. of Cal., 522 U.S. 192, 201 (1997), in turn quoting Rawlings v. Ray, 312 U.S. 96, 98 (1941)).
  22. See, e.g., Bishop v. Children’s Ctr. for Developmental Enrichment, 618 F.3d 533 (6th Cir. 2010); Cao v. Puerto Rico, 525 F.3d 112 (1st Cir. 2008) (§ 1983 claim accrues when plaintiff knew or should have known of her injury); Edison v. Tenn. Dep’t of Children’s Servs., 510 F.3d 631 (6th Cir. 2007).
  23. 512 U.S. 477 (1994). See supra Chapter 17, § II.
  24. Id. at 489–90.
  25. Cnty. of Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44 (1991); Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103 (1975).
  26. Wallace, 549 U.S. at 391–92.
  27. Id. at 388 (emphasis added).
  28. Id. (emphasis added).
  29. Id. at 389.
  30. Id.
  31. Id. at 391. The Court did not decide the damages issue.
  32. Id. at 390. The Court did not resolve whether this damages principle governs damages for a § 1983 false arrest claim. Because Wallace did not assert a § 1983 malicious prosecution claim, the Court did not analyze whether such a claim would have been cognizable.
  33. Wallace, 549 U.S. at 393. The Court said that if a § 1983 Fourth Amendment false arrest claim is filed during the pendency of the criminal prosecution, which may be necessary to comply with the § 1983 limitations period, the federal court may stay the § 1983 action under one of the abstention doctrines. “If the plaintiff is ultimately convicted, and if the stayed suit would impugn that conviction, Heck will require dismissal; otherwise, the civil action will proceed, absent some other bar to suit.” Wallace, 549 U.S. at 393–94 (citations omitted).
  34. See generally 1B Schwartz, supra note 1420, § 12.039[B], pp. 12–42.
  35. Chardon v. Fernandez, 454 U.S. 6, 8 (1981).
  36. See, e.g., Pike v. City of Mission, 731 F.2d 655, 660 (10th Cir. 1984) (en banc) (holding “a plaintiff may not use the continuing violation theory to challenge discrete actions that occurred outside the limitations period even though the impact of the acts continues to be felt”).
  37. 536 U.S. 101 (2002).
  38. See, e.g., Hildebrandt v. Ill. Dep’t of Natural Res., 347 F.3d 1014, 1036 n.18 (7th Cir. 2003); Carpinteria Valley Farms, Ltd. v. Cnty. of Santa Barbara, 344 F.3d 822, 828–29 (9th Cir. 2003).
  39. 549 U.S. 384 (2007).
  40. Id. at 394 (citing Hardin v. Straub, 490 U.S. 536, 538–39 (1989); Bd. of Regents of Univ. of N.Y. v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478, 484–86 (1980)). A federal court will not borrow a state tolling rule if it is inconsistent with the policies of § 1983. See 1B Schwartz, supra note 1420, § 12.05. When an issue of state tolling law is unclear, a federal court may, in accordance with a state certification procedure, certify the issue to the highest court in the state. See Garza v. Burnett, 672 F.3d 1217, 1221–22 (10th Cir. 2012) (court certified unclear question of Utah equitable tolling law to Utah Supreme Court).
  41. It is important to not confuse equitable tolling with equitable estoppel. “‘[E]quitable tolling applies when the plaintiff is unaware of his cause of action, while equitable estoppel applies when a plaintiff who knows of his cause of action reasonably relies on the defendant’s statements or conduct in failing to bring suit.’” Estate of Amaro v. City of Oakland, 653 F.3d 808, 814 (9th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted).
  42. Wallace, 549 U.S. at 396.