Civil Rights Act of 1871, Section 1983

Individuals who are associated with colleges and universities, whether students, faculty, staff, or guests visiting on campuses, whose civil rights have been violated may sue for equitable relief or monetary damages under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. According to Section 1983,

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. (42 U.S.C. § 1983)

Section 1983 is a powerful legal tool insofar as it allows plaintiffs to sue individuals for monetary damages if such individuals violated plaintiffs’ constitutional and statutory rights “under the color of state law” or in the performance of their official duties. Thus, state and local government officials, including those in higher education, can be liable for their actions if courts find that their actions had the effect of depriving individuals of their civil rights. As such, Section 1983 gives aggrieved plaintiffs a vehicle for redress of constitutional or statutory violations of their rights when the statute itself does not contain a comprehensive remedial scheme. In this respect, officials can be sued in their individual capacities as well as their official capacities, meaning that they can be held individually liable for committing civil rights violations. This entry first discusses the historical context and purpose of Section 1983 and then describes some of the legal cases that have defined its scope. The cases outlined here trace the development of the scope of Section 1983’s reach to entities other than the state or federal government and its application as a form of relief for statutory violations. 

Purpose

Originally passed shortly after the Civil War to provide a legal remedy for former slaves whose civil rights were being violated, particularly by members of the Ku Klux Klan as well as state officials, Section 1983 does not create any new civil rights. Rather, it provides a means of enforcement for the federal courts in that it permits individuals to sue public officials for constitutional and statutory violations. As such, Section 1983 provides a powerful remedy against discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and religion as well as against violations of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure. Also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, Section 1983 was introduced by Benjamin Franklin Butler, U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, early in 1871 and was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant later that year.

As its wording indicates, Section 1983 imposes liability on persons. Consequently, plaintiffs may file damages claims against government officers in their official capacities. In this respect, plaintiffs must show that the officers acted “under the color of state law” or in their official capacity if the plaintiffs’ suits are to be successful. Although federal and state governments cannot be liable for damages under Section 1983 pursuant to Eleventh Amendment immunity, they may be sued for declaratory relief (seeking a clarification of individuals’ rights) or for prospective (future) relief. On the other hand, municipal and local governments do not enjoy the same Eleventh Amendment immunity and may be sued for both damages and prospective relief by individuals who claim that their constitutional or statutory rights have been violated.

It is important to recognize that Section 1983 does not confer substantive rights on individuals. Rather, it is used only to enforce the rights already granted by, or to provide redress for violations of, the Constitution or federal statutes. Put another way, in order to succeed under Section 1983, litigants must show that they had constitutional or statutory rights and were deprived of those rights by an action, policy, or custom carried out by government authorities. 

Defenses

Although federal and state governments and their agencies can claim Eleventh Amendment immunity, individual officials within those entities cannot. As indicated above, municipal and local governments do not enjoy the protection of the Eleventh Amendment nor do their officials. However, all officials may be protected by qualified immunity. Qualified immunity can generally be used as a defense when officials acted in discretionary capacities (i.e., exercised their judgment in using their decision-making authority) unless their actions clearly violated well-established constitutional or statutory rights or were obviously wrong. It goes without saying that qualified immunity cannot be used when officials knowingly violated the law.

Significant Litigation

The use of Section 1983 to redress federal constitutional and statutory violations came into prominence in 1961 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Monroe v. Pape. In Monroe, homeowners sued the City of Chicago after police officers conducted a warrantless search of their premises as part of a murder investigation. The Court dismissed the suit against the city on the ground that Congress had not intended the term “person” as used in the act to include municipalities. Even so, the Court upheld the jurisdiction of the federal courts to compensate individuals who were the victims of civil rights violations committed by state officials under the color of law. More important, the Court emphasized that the purposes of Section 1983 were to override a variety of state laws, offer remedies where state laws were inadequate, and afford federal remedies where state remedies were unavailable in practice. 

More than a decade and a half later, in Monell v. Department of Social Services (1978), the Court reversed one of its positions in Monroe in holding that municipalities fell within Section 1983’s definition of “person,” thereby allowing individuals to sue local governments and their officers. Still, the Court limited the circumstances under which local governments could be liable to situations where the wrong resulted from official policies. Subsequently, in Maine v. Thiboutot (1980), the Court observed that because Section 1983 applies to federal statutory laws and well as constitutional laws, it not strictly limited to civil rights or equal protection laws. 

In Wood v. Strickland (1975), the Supreme Court ascertained that members of school boards could be sued under Section 1983. Even though the Court recognized that board members must be able to exercise judgment, it countered that those who act with disregard for the law could be held liable if they did so with an impermissible motivation or in bad faith. While Wood involved a dispute that arose in the public schools, its judgment may be applied to situations involving higher education, especially where board members, faculty, and staff must exercise their independent judgments in decision making.

As pointed out, the intent of Section 1983 is to provide a remedy in situations where individuals have been deprived of their constitutional or statutory civil rights. Yet many remedial statutes provide their own remedies. In a series of cases, the Supreme Court ruled that in these situations, where statutory remedies are comprehensive, Section 1983 may be unavailable. In the first case, Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Association (1983), a noneducation dispute, the Court declared that the existence of express remedies in the statutes at issue in the suit demonstrated Congress’s intention to supplant any remedy that otherwise might be available under Section 1983 for violations of those statutes by any governmental entities.

Later, in Smith v. Robinson (1984), the Court interpreted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHCA), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as the exclusive avenue through which the rights of a student with disabilities to a free appropriate public education could be brought. Here the parents of a student with disabilities prevailed against a school board in a dispute over the financial responsibility for the child’s special education program. After prevailing in their suit, the parents sought reimbursement of their legal expenses. In maintaining that such reimbursement was not available under the IDEA, the Court examined the interplay between Section 1983 and the IDEA. The Court concluded that Congress intended that students who had constitutional claims to a free appropriate public education pursue those claims through the EHCA’s carefully tailored administrative and judicial scheme. In view of the EHCA’s comprehensive nature and remedies, the Court concluded that Congress intended to preclude reliance on Section 1983 to remedy equal protection claims that were essentially identical to plaintiffs’ EHCA claims. Interestingly, Congress later essentially overturned this decision in enacting the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act (1986), awarding attorney fees to prevailing plaintiffs based on the notion that they should have been compensated for procuring services that their children were already entitled to receive.

Similarly, in another noneducation case, City of Rancho Palos Verdes v. Abrams (2005), the Supreme Court reasoned that the provision of an express, private means of redress in a statute itself was an indication that Congress did not intend to establish a separate remedy under Section 1983. In addition, the Court, citing its own precedent, wrote that even though Section 1983 authorizes suits to enforce individual rights under the Constitution and federal statutes, it does not provide a means of relief every time a state actor violates a federal law. The Court emphasized that Section 1983 allows the enforcement of rights, not benefits or interests. In the end, the Court explained that a defendant may defeat the presumption that a right is enforceable under Section 1983 by showing that Congress did not intend that remedy for a newly created right. The evidence of such intent could be found directly in the statute, the Court added, or it could be inferred from the act’s creation of a comprehensive enforcement scheme. 

In its most recent case involving Section 1983, Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (2009), the Supreme Court clarified that the mere existence of a remedy within a statute is insufficient to reveal congressional intent for a remedy to be exclusive. The Court elaborated that the remedy must be comprehensive. Contrasting earlier cases with the situation here, which involved Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Court was of the view that Title IX did not have an enforcement scheme that required plaintiffs to comply with specified procedures or resort to an administrative process before taking their grievances to a judicial forum.

On the basis of Rancho Palos Verdes, lower courts are now examining various federal and state statutes to evaluate whether their own remedial schemes are sufficient to preclude redress under Section 1983. For example, citing the Supreme Court’s precedent, the Third Circuit has concluded that the remedy under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is exclusive, and nothing within that statute indicates that Congress intended to allow Section 1983 to remedy Section 504 violations (A. W. v. Jersey City Public Schools, 2007). 

Conclusion

Section 1983 provides litigants from institutions of higher learning with a powerful tool to enforce their rights under constitutional and statutory law. Administrators and other officials in colleges and universities could be personally liable under Section 1983, particularly when actions they have taken in their official capacities have the effect of discriminating against protected individuals. The old adage that ignorance of the law is no excuse is particularly relevant in regard to Section 1983 suits, because officials can be liable not only for knowingly violating the law but also when their actions violated clearly established rights, even when no ill intent was present. Unlike federal and state agencies, individual officials do not enjoy Eleventh Amendment immunity to suit under Section 1983.

An area worth closely watching is whether Section 1983 can be used to redress violations of all federal and state laws. Recently, based on Supreme Court precedent, lower courts have agreed that a number of statutes contain their own exclusive remedies and, therefore, preclude suits under Section 1983. This does not mean that officials would be immune to liability, as they could be subject to suits under the statutes in question themselves. However, the remedies provided under the statutes themselves may not be as severe as those that could be imposed under Section 1983.

Allan G. Osborne, Jr.

See also Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Legal Citations

  • A. W. v. Jersey City Public Schools, 486 F.3d 791 (3d Cir. 2007).
  • City of Rancho Palos Verdes v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113 (2005).
  • Civil Rights Act of 1871, Section 1983, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
  • Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, 129 S. Ct. 788 (2009).
  • Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-372.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.
  • Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1 (1980).
  • Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Association, 453 U.S. 1 (1983).
  • Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).
  • Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961). Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, 29 U.S.C. §§ 794 et seq.
  • Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992 (1984).
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681.
  • Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308 (1975).