Section 1983 allows you to bring federal claims in federal court. But you can also bring federal claims in state court.
One reason you might want to sue in state court, rather than federal court, is the Prison Litigation Reform Act, or “PLRA.” The PLRA is a federal law that makes it difficult for a prisoner to file a federal lawsuit by imposing all sorts of procedural hurdles and requirements. We explain the PLRA in Section F of this Chapter. Many states have laws similar to the PLRA, but others don’t. If you live in a state that doesn’t have a PLRA-like statute, suing in state court may make things much easier for you.
Another good thing about state court is that you may also be able to enforce rights that you don’t have in federal court. For example, a state “tort” claim is an entirely different way to address poor prison conditions. A tort means an injury or wrong of some sort. The advantage of suing in state court is that some conduct by prison guards may be considered a “tort” but may not be so bad as to be a constitutional violation.
For example, you will learn in Chapter Three that the Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment” and entitles prisoners to medical care that is not so poor as to amount to such punishment. For a constitutional medical care claim (described in detail in the next chapter) a prisoner needs to prove that he or she had a serious medical need and that the guard or doctor in question acted recklessly in failing to provide medical care. On the other hand, you can sue a prison doctor for medical negligence if they mess up in your treatment, whether that mistake was reckless or not. Common torts are listed in the next section of this Chapter, under the heading “Types of Torts.”
Another type of state claim is a claim based on your state’s constitution. Some state constitutions provide more rights than the federal constitution.
Sometimes a prisoner’s suit handled by a lawyer will include claims based on state law as well as federal law. You can do this in a Section 1983 suit if the action you are suing about violates both state and federal law. But it is tricky to try this without an experienced lawyer, and usually it won’t make a very big difference. You can’t use Section 1983 to sue about an action that only violates state law.
Historically, federal judges were more sympathetic to prisoners than state judges. However, the PLRA has made federal court a much less friendly place for prisoners. Sadly, that does not mean that you will necessarily get fair treatment in state court. Many state court judges are elected, rather than appointed, so they may avoid ruling for prisoners because it might hurt their chances of getting re-elected.
Appendix H lists some organizations that may have information about your state.