Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code provides, in part:
§ 1983. Civil action for deprivation of rights
“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,. . ."
Under this federal statute, a person who is deprived of their rights under the
Constitution by someone acting under “color of law” (federal, state, or local)
can bring a federal cause of action for damages and other relief. The statute
provides a right of redress for parties deprived of constitutional rights,
privileges, and immunities by an official's abuse of his or her governmental
Elements of a Cause of Action
Generally speaking, there are three elements required to bring an action under
42 U.S.C. 1983. The plaintiff must prove the following:
1) He or she was deprived of a specific right, privilege, or immunity
secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States;
2) The alleged deprivation was committed under color of state law; and
3) The deprivation was the proximate cause of injuries suffered by the
There must be a causal connection between the defendant’s action and the
alleged injury. This means that harm experienced by the plaintiff must be the
result of an action on the part of the governmental entity or its agent.
Who can be sued?
Anyone acting under “color of law” can be sued under this statute. Local
governments, municipal corporations, and school boards can all be subject to
liability under 42 U.S.C. 1983, but only if their policies or procedures were the
proximate cause of the Constitutional deprivation and the injury alleged.
Generally, in the absence of a “policy claim”, individuals employed by federal,
state or local government are the parties named as defendants. They are sued
individually for actions they took in their official capacity. In some cases,
private citizens can become liable in a “1983 action”, if they acted in concert
with public officials to deprive someone of their Constitutional rights.
An affirmative defense of qualified immunity is available to defendants who
acted under circumstances where a reasonable official may not have
understood that the conduct alleged was illegal. It is not necessary to show
that the defendant officer was acting in bad faith and, indeed, the officer’s
subjective intentions, such as a good faith belief that what he was doing was
lawful, are irrelevant. To defeat qualified immunity, it is necessary for the
plaintiff to show that, given the facts and circumstances alleged, any
reasonable officer would have known that the conduct complained of violated
well-established law at the time of the incident.
A victim may recover compensatory damages, injunctive relief, and (except in
the case of municipal defendants) punitive damages. The prevailing plaintiff
can also recover the costs of the litigation and reasonable attorneys' fees.