In your complaint you have to name at least one defendant. But if you want, you can name more than one. You should include all of the people or entities that were responsible for the harm that you suffered. However, you do not want to go too far and name uninvolved people in the hopes of increasing your chances of winning. You must have a good reason to sue someone.
Every defendant you sue must have acted “under color of state law” as you learned in Chapter Two, Section A, Part 2. What this means is that each prison official who was responsible for your injury must have acted while working at your prison or otherwise “on duty.” This can include anyone who is involved in running your prison. You can sue the people who work in your prison, such as guards, as well as the people that provide services to prisoners, such as nurses or doctors.
You have to prove that each defendant in your case acted in a way or failed to act in a way that led to the violation of your rights. This is called “causation.” For example, if a guard illegally beats you and violates your rights, he or she causes your injury. The guard’s supervisor could also be liable for violating your rights if you can show that the supervisor made or carried out a “policy” or “practice” that led to the violation of your rights. So, let’s say that the prison warden, who is the supervisor of the guard who beat you, instructed his guards to beat prisoners anytime that they did not follow orders. In this instance, the warden didn’t actually beat you himself, but he is responsible for creating a policy that led to the beatings.
Sometimes, a supervisor may also be sued for ignoring or failing to react to a widespread health or safety problem. For example, if the warden was aware that guards refused to let prisoners eat on a regular basis and did not do anything to stop it, you might be able to sue the warden as well as the guards.
In 2009 the Supreme Court decided a case called Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), that may limit the ways in which supervisors can be sued for ignoring illegal action. Some courts are interpreting Iqbal to limit a plaintiff’s right to sue a supervisor who ignored illegal action by a guard s/he supervised. Other courts have found that ignoring illegal action is still a ground for suit after Iqbal. This issue is discussed in more detail in Part 2 of this section.
You also have to decide whether to sue a prison official in his or her “individual capacity” or “official capacity.” If you sue John Doe, supervising guard at your prison, in his individual capacity, it means you are suing John Doe personally. When you sue a guard for money damages, you need to sue him in his individual capacity.
In contrast, if you sue John Doe, supervising guard at your prison, in his official capacity, that means that you are suing whoever is the supervising guard at the time of your lawsuit, whether or not that person is actually John Doe. If you are seeking injunctive relief, you will need to sue the guard in his official capacity. If you are seeking both damages and injunctive relief, you sue the guard in both their individual and official capacity.
There are legal differences between who you can sue in an action for an injunction and who you can sue for money damages. A discussion of these differences follows below. It is important to keep in mind that you can sue for an injunction and money damages together in one lawsuit.
1. Who to Sue for an Injunction
The purpose of an injunction is to change conditions in your prison by making prison officials take some action or stop doing something that violates your rights. In this kind of lawsuit you need to sue the officials in charge.
You cannot sue a state or a state agency directly. This means you can’t sue “The New York State Department of Correctional Services” or New York State itself for either an injunction or for money damages. Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984).
- Sue prison guards or administrators in their “individual capacity” if you want money damages.
- Sue prison guards or administrators in their “official capacity” if you want an injunction.
If you want both, sue everybody in their “individual and official capacities.”
You will learn where to state that you are suing someone in his or her individual or official capacity in Chapter Five.
But, when you sue state-employed prison officials in their official capacity, this can force the state and its state agencies to respect your rights. For that reason, you need to sue the person at the prison who has the ability to make whatever change you want. This might be the warden, or a counselor, or a unit manager. If you are asking for an injunction, make sure you sue high-ranking officials at your prison, and mention the titles of the prison officials who you are suing as well as their names.
Although you can’t sue a state, you can sue a municipality directly for an injunction. A “municipality” is a city, town, county or other kind of local government. This is called a “Monell claim” because it first succeeded in an important case called Monell v. Dept. of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 659 (1978). You can sue a city, or any other municipality, for an injunction or damages where the violation of your rights was the product of a city’s official policy or unofficial custom. Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469 (1986). Be warned that proving a policy or custom is hard unless the policy is actually written down.
You are unlikely to win against a municipality if your injury was the result of one specific event, or was caused by only one prison or jail official. You will be in a better position to win against a municipality if you can show that the municipality was guilty of a pattern of abuse that resulted in the violation of your rights
Remember that you can still get an injunction against the prison or jail officials even if you can’t get one directly against the municipality. Name everyone who you want to hold liable.
2. Who to Sue for Money Damages: the Problem of “Qualified Immunity.”
If you want to sue for money damages, you have to sue the prison officials who violated your rights in their individual capacity (personally). As with injunctions, you cannot sue your state or the prison itself.
The biggest hurdle in suing prison officials for money damages is the doctrine of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is a form of legal protection given to government officials. If a court rules that the prison officials you are suing are protected by qualified immunity, that will be the end of your lawsuit for damages. However, qualified immunity does not protect defendants from an injunction!
To overcome qualified immunity and get money damages, your complaint (explained in detail in Chapter Five) must include facts that show that:
- Your constitutional rights were violated;
- The right that was violated was “clearly established” and
- The defendant was personally responsible for the violation of your rights. This is called the “personal involvement” requirement.
For a right to be clearly established, a prison official must have fair warning that his or her actions in a situation were illegal. Prison officials are allowed to make reasonable mistakes. A prison official may act illegally and still be free from liability if he or she couldn’t be expected to know better because the law in that area is unclear. However, an official can be held responsible if he or she knew (or should have known) that he or she was acting illegally. The main Supreme Court cases on this topic are Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001) and Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982). Most states will require you to show that a reasonable prison official would know that his or her actions were unconstitutional. Prison Legal News v. Lehman, 397 F.3d 692, 701 (9th Cir. 2005). You should cite to cases that are similar to yours to show that the prison and guards should have known (or did know) that they were violating your rights. The prison or guards are going to argue that the law is not clearly established and you want to show laws, prison regulations, or cases to prove that it is.
The personal involvement requirement means that you can only get damages from officials or guards who actually personally violated your rights. Prison supervisors or other high level officials (like the state prison commissioner) cannot be held liable for a violation of your rights just because they are responsible for supervising or employing the guards who actually violated your rights. Holding a supervisor responsible just because they are a supervisor is called “respondeat superior” and it is not allowed in Section 1983 claims.
Before 2009, the law was clear that you can hold supervisors responsible on the following theories:
(1) The supervisor directly participated in the violation;
(2) The supervisor learned of the violation of your rights and failed to do anything to fix the situation;
(3) The supervisor created a policy or custom allowing or encouraging the illegal acts; or
(4) The supervisor failed to adequately train or supervise his or her subordinates.
One case discussing this kind of liability is Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865 (2d Cir. 1995). In Colon, the court held that a letter from a prisoner to the prison superintendent was not enough to establish the superintendent’s personal involvement. In another case, Valdes v. Crosby, 450 F.3d 1231 (11th Cir. 2006), the court allowed suit against a warden who had been warned by the previous warden about a correctional officer’s violent behavior. Hardy v. District of Columbia, 601 F.Supp. 2d 182 (D.C. Dist. 2009) is a case that talks about supervisory liability for failure to supervise or a lack of training.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal,129 S. C.t 1937 (2009), courts are divided on whether there are new limits to a prisoner’s ability to sue a supervisor who ignored information about a constitutional wrongdoing, as opposed to participating in the action himself or herself. As the law is changing quickly in this area, you should research the impact of Iqbal on supervisory liability in your district when deciding what supervisors to name.
Some public officials have what is called absolute immunity. Unlike qualified immunity, absolute immunity is a complete bar to lawsuit. Because of this doctrine, you cannot sue a judge, a legislator, or anyone else acting “as an integral part of the judicial or legislative process” no matter what he or she has done.
You may also be worried that the prison officials you want to sue do not seem to have enough money to pay you. But in most cases any money damages that the court orders the prison officials to pay will actually be paid by their employers: the prison, the state, or the state agency that runs the prison. This is called “indemnification.”
Finally, although there are different rules as to which remedies you can ask for from specific defendants, you can still ask for an injunction and money damages in the same complaint. For example, you can sue a guard in his or her individual capacity (for money damages) and his or her official capacity (for an injunction) in the same lawsuit.
3. What Happens to Your Money Damages
If you win money damages, the PLRA contains rules that may affect your award before you get it. The PLRA states: “any compensatory damages…shall be paid directly to satisfy any outstanding restitution orders pending against the prisoner. The remainder…shall be forwarded to the prisoner.”
This means that if you are awarded compensatory damages after a successful suit, any debts you have towards the victim of your crime will be automatically paid out of your award before you get your money. This rule does not apply to punitive damages.
The PLRA also states that if you are awarded damages, “reasonable efforts” will be made to notify the “victims of the crime” for which you were convicted. There have been very few rulings regarding these provisions so far, so it is hard to say whether and how they will be implemented.