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The 150th Anniversary of Section 1983

Written by Sorin Leahu on March 5, 2021 Category: Appellate and Constitutional Law

Section 1983 ­— 42 U.S.C § 1983 — is celebrating its 150th Anniversary this year. Section 1983 is the foremost federal statute for bringing federal claims against government officials and entities for violations of civil rights.

The origins of Section 1983 date back to 1871 when it was then known as the Klu Klux Klan Act (“Act”). The purpose of the Act was to empower the government to combat the KKK and to provide a remedy in federal courts as result of the failure of state governments and courts to adequately enforce the rights granted in the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the Act does not exist in the same form today, a number of the Act’s provisions have been codified into statute, the most significant one being Section 1983.

Section 1983 provides:

“Every person who under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, Suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.”

Section 1983 provides relief in the form of money damages to those whose constitutional rights have been violated by a person acting under State authority (“color of law”). In addition, to encourage litigants and attorneys to bring meritorious civil rights cases, Section 1988 authorizes a prevailing plaintiff to recover attorneys’ fees.

Section 1983 is not, itself, a source of rights. Rather, it exists to remedy constitutional violations or those which exist under federal statute. Common types of Section 1983 cases are those involving violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment. An example of a Section 1983 case involving First Amendment violations might be retaliation against an employee for protected speech. A Section 1983 case involving violations of the Fourth Amendment typically deal with unlawful searches and seizures by government officials as well as excessive force by police officers. Section 1983 cases for violations of the Fourteenth Amendment involve violations of the due process clause or the equal protection clause.

Those seeking to bring Section 1983 cases should be aware of the various defenses that are raised by the government. These typically include the statute of limitations and certain doctrines known as qualified or absolute immunity. Likewise, under a case known as Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), local government entities may shield themselves from liability on the basis that the challenged action was not an official policy, practice, or custom of the entity.

Section 1983 cases are always interesting but can provide traps for the unwary. It is always advisable to seek legal assistance if you believe you have a meritorious claim. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich are familiar with these matters and can evaluate potential claims.

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