Produced by the Civil Rights & Liberties Section of the State Bar of Wisconsin in partnership with State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE®
Identifying civil rights lawsuits
In theory, Section 1983 seems straightforward. If a person’s constitutional rights are violated by a federal or state governmental actor, then they have a valid Section 1983 claim, right? Wrong. Litigating these cases is procedurally tricky and highly technical; multiple requirements must be met before a Section 1983 claim can be pursued. Without careful preparation, your client’s claim could be dismissed by the courts.
A Section 1983 Overview for General Litigators will ensure you thoroughly understand the various elements of a civil rights claim and are prepared to address problems that arise during litigation.
Breaking down §1983
Section 1983 was first enacted in 1871, in an attempt to address post-Civil War race relations in the South.1 However, the statute lay dormant for 90 years until a watershed 1960s civil rights case. In Monroe v. Pape, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed that while municipalities cannot be held liable, individuals acting “under color of law” can be sued under §1983 for violating a plaintiff’s constitutional rights.2
Review rights secured by the Constitution. Understand what constitutes “unauthorized conduct” by public officials. Know how to assess in which forum to pursue your §1983 case. Be prepared for issues that may arise when litigating a federal claim in a state forum.
When filing a Section 1983 claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate that they are entitled to damages. Review liability standards and the types of relief your client may be eligible for.
Conversely, there are a plethora of immunities that protect individual state and local government officials against liability. To effectively challenge claimed damages, you need to be familiar with who has absolute vs. qualified immunity.