Northeastern PA Civil Rights Attorneys

Have Your Civil Rights Been Violated?

The United States Constitution guarantees certain rights for all Americans and provides protection to individuals against abuse and overreach by government representatives. When government actors violate an individuals civil rights, they can file a lawsuit to seek money damages and other forms of legal relief. The individual may be able to recover money damages for lost wages, medical bills, the cost of retaining counsel to defend against false criminal charges, pain and suffering, and attorney's fees and costs. The individual can also seek injunctive relief to stop the improper conduct.

What is a "Section 1983" Lawsuit?

These lawsuits are commonly referenced when an individual sues claiming to have been the victim of excessive police force.The Civil Rights Act of 1871 is a federal statute, numbered 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that allows people to sue the government for civil rights violations. A Section 1983 lawsuit alleges that a state or local official has violated your civil rights under the United States Constitution.  

Only federal rights are protected by the statute, rights guaranteed by state law cannot be the basis of a lawsuit under the statute.

Section 1983 acts as nothing more than a procedural device based on a federal statute. Quite simply, it gives federal courts jurisdiction to hear civil rights cases. No one can be held liable under Section 1983 itself, rather, the statute creates liability for violating other federal laws. Section 1983 cases always include an alleged violation of another law, examples include:

  • False Arrest;
  • Excessive Force/Brutality;
  • Malicious Prosecution/Abuse of Process; 
  • Denial of Medical Care
  • First Amendment; and
  • Fourteenth Amendment
"Under Color of" State Law

For Section 1983 to be applicable, the person being sued, must have acted under color of state law. Courts have held that individuals act under color of any statute when they behave with the apparent authority of the state. Generally speaking, it  refers to people who misuse some kind of authority that they get from state law. As an example, police officers who use excessive force generally fit this bill.

Who Can be Sued Under Section 1983?

If your civil rights have been violated, you can file a lawsuit against individuals who acted under the color of state law. Examples of this would include:

  • Individuals who work for the government;
  • Individuals who conspire with those government workers; and
  • Certain government entities

A Section 1983 lawsuit can be filed against individuals such as:

  • Police Officers;
  • Chiefs of Police
  • Sheriff's Deputies;
  • Prison Guards (state or county);
  • Prison Wardens; and
  • Other Public Officials

If a custom or policy of the municipality led to the violation of your constitutional rights, the municipality can be sued as well. Examples of this would include the following:

  • Towns;
  • Cities;
  • Counties; and
  • Local entities such as a school district or police department.
What Damages Can be Obtained in a Section 1983 Lawsuit?

Successful 1983 lawsuits can produce two kinds of remedies. They are:

  • Monetary damages; and
  • Injunctive relief

The type of monetary damages that can be awarded include the following:

  • Medical bills;
  • Lost wages;;
  • Reduced earning capacity;
  • Fringe benefits;
  • Pain and suffering; and
  • Attorney's fees and costs

Punitive damages may be awarded in a 1983 lawsuit when the defendant exhibited "reckless or callous disregard of, or indifference to, the rights or safety of others. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer for violating the plaintiff's civil rights. Punitive damages can not be imposed against municipalities or counties.

Section 1983 Statute of Limitations

Congress has not enacted a statute of limitations that expressly governs all 1983 lawsuits. The United States Supreme Court has held that in the interest of uniformity, a state's personal injury statute of limitations should apply to all 1983 lawsuits. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 279 (1985).

In Pennsylvania the applicable statute of limitations for a Section 1983 lawsuit is two years. You have two years from the time the claim accrues to bring a 1983 lawsuit.

Immunity Under Section 1983

Section 1983 does not explicitly provide for immunity of any type, however, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public officials are entitled to either absolute or qualified immunity with regard to performance of their official duties. Richardson v. McKnight, 521 U.S. 399, 403 (1997).

State officials, such as judges, prosecutors, and state lawmakers, are absolutely immune from Section 1983 lawsuits for monetary damages.

Others state and local actors have only qualified immunity. The issue of whether a public official is entitled to qualified immunity depends on whether that individual violated clearly established federal law. Conn. v. Gabbert, 526 U.S. 286 (1999). An official with qualified immunity can escape liability if the constitutional right he or she violated was not “clearly established under federal law.” 

Can Federal Officials be Subject to Lawsuits Under Section 1983?

Generally speaking, federal officials are not subject to 1983 lawsuits unless they conspired with state or local officials in some way. However, the United States Supreme Court held that a lawsuit can be brought against a federal officer personally for an alleged violation of federally protected rights. Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).

This type of lawsuit is similar to a 1983 claim. The only difference is that Section 1983 claims apply to violations of constitutional rights by state, rather than federal, officials.

With regard to the immunities afforded federal officials as opposed to those afforded to state officials, the qualified immunity defense is the same. Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999).

Contact Us Today

If you or a loved one have had your Civil Rights violated, call Sklarosky Law today at (570) 283-1200 or use our online contact form and tell us about your potential case. These claims can be complex and challenging.  Do not wait, call us today so that we can help you obtain the financial compensation you may be entitled to.

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