The main way to understand what kind of suit you can bring under Section 1983 is to look at the words of that law:
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 ….
Some of the words are perfectly clear. Others have meanings that you might not expect, based on years of interpretation by judges. In this section we will explore what the words themselves and judges’ opinions from past lawsuits tell us about what kind of suit is allowed under Section 1983.
Although Section 1983 was designed especially to help African-Americans, anyone can use it, regardless of race. The law refers to “any citizen of the United States or any other person within the jurisdiction thereof.” This means that you can file a Section 1983 action even if you are not a United States citizen. Martinez v. City of Los Angeles, 141 F.3d 1373 (9th Cir. 1998). All you need is to have been “within the jurisdiction” when your rights were violated. “Within the jurisdiction” just means you were physically present in the United States.
Not every harm you suffer or every violation of your rights is covered by Section 1983. There are two requirements. First, Section 1983 applies to the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” This means that the actions you are suing about must violate your federal rights. Federal rights are those given by the U.S. Constitution, Amendments to the Constitution, and laws passed by the U.S. Congress. They are explained in part 1, below. Second, Section 1983 also says “under color of any statue, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage, of any State or Territory.” Courts have developed a short-hand for this phrase. They call it “under color of state law.” This means that the violation of your rights must have been done by a state or local official. This requirement is explained in part 2 below.
1. Violations of Your Federal Rights
Section 1983 won’t help you with all the ways in which prison officials mistreat prisoners. You need to show that the way a prison official treated you violates the U.S. Constitution or a law passed by the U.S. Congress.
Prisoners most commonly use Section 1983 to enforce rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. These are called “constitutional rights.” Your constitutional rights are explained in Chapter Three.
You can also use Section 1983 to enforce rights in federal laws, or “statutes.” Only a few federal laws grant rights which apply to prisoners. One such law, for example, is the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the “ADA.” The ADA can be found at 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 – 12213. The ADA prevents discrimination against people with disabilities, including prisoners. If you have any sort of physical or mental disability you may be able to file a Section 1983 lawsuit using the ADA. That said, you can also file an ADA lawsuit without making reference to Section 1983, and that may be a better approach.
Another federal statute that may be useful to prisoners is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or “RLUIPA,” which was passed by Congress in 2000. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). RLUIPA protects prisoners’ rights to exercise their religion and may be used by any prisoner, whether in federal or state prison or in jail. A second federal statute protecting the religious rights of prisoners is the Religious Freedom Reformation Act, or “RFRA.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(c). RFRA can only be used by prisoners in federal prison. It is not available to prisoners in state prison. Religious freedom is a constitutional right protected by the First Amendment, but RLUIPA and RFRA provide even more protection than the First Amendment. Chapter Three, Section B explains the protection provided by each of these laws. Like ADA claims, these claims can be brought in a Section 1983 suit, or on their own.
Prisoners can use Section 1983 to sue about conditions or treatment in prison. You cannot use Section 1983 to challenge the reason you are in prison, how long you are in prison, or to obtain immediate or speedier release from prison. If you want to challenge your trial, your conviction, or your sentence, you need to use a completely different type of action, called a writ of habeas corpus. This handbook will not help you with that kind of case, but some of the resources listed in Appendix J explain how to do it.
2. “Under Color of State Law”
Section 1983 only allows you to sue for actions taken “under color of state law.” This means that your rights must have been violated by a state or local official. This includes people who work for the state, city, county or other local governments. If you are in a state prison, anything done to you by a prison guard, prison doctor, or prison administrator (like the warden) is an action “under color of state law.”
The “under color of state law” requirement does not mean that the action has to have been legal under state law. This is very important, and was decided in a case called Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961). All you need to show is that the person you sue was working for the prison system or some other part of state or city government at the time of the acts you’re suing about.
The decision in Monroe v. Pape that state government officials can be sued under Section 1983 was expanded in a case called Monell v. New York City Dep’t of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). In that case, the Supreme Court allowed for 1983 claims against municipal and city governments.
In a Section 1983 suit, you can sue over a one-time action that violated your rights. For example, you can sue if a guard beats you. You can also sue over a pattern or practice of certain acts, like if guards routinely look away and fail to act when prisoners fight with each other. Finally, you can also sue over an official prison policy. For example, you could sue if the prison has a policy that allows Catholic prisoners to pray together, but doesn’t allow the same thing for Muslim prisoners.
You can’t use Section 1983 to sue federal employees over their actions because they act under color of federal law, not state law. This is OK, because you can use a Bivens action to sue in federal court when a federal official violates your constitutional rights. Bivens actions are explained in Section D of this chapter.
You can’t use Section 1983 to sue a private citizen who acted without any connection to the government or any governmental power. For example, if another prisoner assaults you, you cannot use Section 1983 to sue that prisoner, because he or she does not work for the government. You could, however, use Section 1983 to sue a guard for failing to protect you from the assault.
A person can exercise power from the government even if he or she doesn’t actually work for the state directly. You can use Section 1983 to sue a private citizen, such as a doctor, who mistreats you while he is working with or for prison officials. In a case called West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42 (1988), the Supreme Court held that a private doctor with whom the state contracts to provide treatment to a prisoner can be sued using Section 1983.
Using Section 1983 is complicated if you are incarcerated in a private prison. The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether you can sue private prison guards the way you can sue state prison guards. Most courts will look at whether the guard is performing a traditional state function so that it looks just like the guard is acting “under color of state law. One case that discusses this in detail is Skelton v. PriCor, Inc., 963 F.2d 100 (6th Cir. 1991). In Skelton, a private prison employee wouldn’t let an inmate go to the law library or have a bible. The Sixth Circuit ruled that the private prison guard’s action was “under color of state law” and allowed the prisoner to sue using Section 1983. Another helpful case is Giron v. Corrections Corporation of America, 14 F. Supp. 2d 1245 (D.N.M. 1998). In that case a woman was raped by a guard at a private prison. The court held that the guard was “performing a traditional state function” by working at the prison, so his actions were “under color of state law.”
“Plaintiff” is the person who starts a lawsuit. If you sue a guard over prison abuse, you are a plaintiff.
“Defendant” is the person who you sue. If you sue a prison doctor, guard, and a supervisor, they are all defendants.