If you bring a lawsuit under Section 1983, you can ask for three things: money damages, a declaratory judgment, or an injunction. You don’t have to ask for just one – you can ask for two or all three. In the legal world, all three of these options are called “relief.”
- Money damages is when the court orders the defendants to pay you money to make up for harm you suffered in the past.
- An injunction is a court order that directs prison officials to make changes in your prison conditions and/or stop on-going conduct that the court finds to be illegal.
- A declaratory judgment is when a court makes a decision that explains your legal rights and the legal duties and obligations of the prison officials. However, the court doesn’t order the prison to do or stop doing anything. If you get a declaratory judgment and the prison doesn’t follow it, you can then ask the court for an injunction to make them do so.
Courts usually issue a declaratory judgment and an injunction together. However, it is also possible for a court to issue only the declaratory judgment and let the prison officials decide what actions will comply with the declaratory judgment.
A court will only issue an injunction if it feels that money damages will not fix whatever has harmed you. For instance, if you have to continue living in the unsafe conditions you sued over, money damages will not make those conditions any safer.
Section B of this chapter talks about injunctions in more detail, including when you can get an injunction,
what it can cover, and how to enforce it. Section C of this Chapter explains money damages, Section D explains who you can sue (the “defendants”) and Section E explains settlements.
If you are part of a group of prisoners who want a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief (and sometimes money damages) from a court, you can ask the court to make the lawsuit a class action. This kind of lawsuit joins together all people who have been harmed in the same way as you at the same prison or jail. There are very specific requirements for bringing a class action lawsuit. These requirements will be discussed in Section F of this chapter.
When you think about what kind of relief you want, it is important to keep in mind that in a Section 1983 or Bivens suit, a federal court cannot release you from prison or reduce your sentence. Additionally, you cannot use these kinds of lawsuits to request the reinstatement of good-conduct-time credits that have been unconstitutionally taken from you. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973). You can only challenge the fact or the length of your prison sentence through a writ of habeas corpus, which requires that you go through your state court system before seeking relief from a federal court.
A detailed discussion of the writ of habeas corpus is beyond the scope of this Handbook. But see Appendix J for some books and resources on habeas corpus.