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United States Civil Rights Lawsuits

From dKosopedia



Civil rights lawsuits are one of a number of methods of holding the government, or people who act in a governmental capacity, responsible in court for their actions. This largely class of actions is called Public Law, a distinction commonly made in countries with a Civil Law system, but rarely so fundamentally defined in a Common Law system.

The main statute that authorized federal civil rights lawsuits is Title 42, United States Code, Section 1983, commonly called a "1983" suit.

Defendants in 1983 lawsuits can be broken into two main categories, individuals, usually governmental employees or agents, and governments themselves. Among governments, distinctions are made between the federal government, state governments, and local governments. For example, as a result of the 11th Amendment to the United States, state governments can generally be sued for a violation of civil rights in state court, while local governments are routinely sued in federal court for violating an individual's civil rights.

Individual Defendants

To sue an individual for money damages for violating your civil rights you must identify the particular individual who was responsible for that violation of your rights, so that this individual's actions were unconstitutional, and overcome that individual's "qualified immunity" by showing that prior court cases had clearly established the right violated.

This is basically a "one free bite" rule. If your rights are violated in some old fashioned way, you can sue the person who violated them. But, if your rights are violated in some new and creative way, the person who violated your rights gets off, and only future plaintiffs can benefit from a court determination in your case that acts of this type are unconstitutional violations of your rights.

Governmental Defendants

When an employee of a private company is involved in a legal violation, such as a car accident, the employer is "vicariously liable" which means automatically responsible in full for the employee's actions without regard to fault, so long as the employee was acting in furtherance of the employer when the event happened.

Governments whose employees have violated an individual's civil rights in the course of their employment, in contrast, are not liable automatically for money damages for the acts of the employee. The government must either have a policy of breaking the law, or show deliberate indifference to its citizens rights through its training and hiring practices in a way that causually leads to a violation of civil rights. An example of the application of the deliberate indifference standard in a recent court case is found [here.

Injunctive Relief

Even when money damages are not available for a violation of someone's constitutional rights, a court will generally issue "injunctive relief" in the form of a court order prohibiting practices which are found to be unconstitutional in the future.

The Bottom Line

It is frequently the case that even when the government through its employees violates your constitutional rights, as determined by the courts and neutral fact finders, that you are still not entitled to relief from anyone.

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This page was last modified 21:47, 19 May 2009 by Chad Lupkes. Based on work by Andrew Oh-Willeke. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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