F.A.Q. on § 1983 actions

If you aren’t familiar with § 1983 actions, I’m hoping this F.A.Q. will help you. I sometimes cut some of this preamble from the cases that are summarized because of its length.

Q. What is a § 1983 case?

A. This occurs when a plaintiff (who will be bolded on this website) has accused a state or local police officer (defendant) of violating their constitutional rights. It is a civil case that is frequently heard in federal court. It is called a 1983 case because it derives from 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Please note, an officer can also be criminally charged for violating someone’s constitutional rights. That is a different case from a 1983).

Q. How does the plaintiff prevail?

A. They have to prove both that a constitutional violation occurred and that it was “clearly established.”

Q. When a plaintiff files a § 1983 against an officer, what is the normal response by the officer?

A. The officer will often file a motion for summary judgement, arguing there are no genuine issues of material fact. Effectively, he is citing qualified immunity.

Q. What is a constitutional violation?

A. It could be excessive force, unlawful arrest, false imprisonment, or others. I think you will find excessive force to be the most common 1983 case. In all of the above examples, the argument is that the seizure is unreasonable thus violating the 4th amendment. Just keep in mind that 1983 actions can also be for unreasonable searches, denial of medical care, etc. Finally, proving excessive force is different from proving false imprisonment. Each has its own steps.

Q. Since excessive force is most common, how would the officer be violating the constitution?

A. There needs to be 1) an injury, 2) resulting directly and only from use of force that was excessive and 3) excessiveness was unreasonable. As to injury, the court has said as long as a plaintiff has suffered some injury, even relatively insignificant injuries will prove cognizable when resulting from an officer’s unreasonably excessive force. To determine whether prong 2 and 3 were violated, the court looks at the Graham factors {see SCOTUS Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)}. Thus, they look at a) severity of crime, b) whether suspect poses an immediate threat to officers or others and c) whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. Although not a part of the Graham factors, the 5th also considers the speed with which the officer resorted to force to determine whether prongs 2 and prong 3 were violated.

Q. Isn’t there a lot of he said she said? How would the court determine which version was correct?

A. It is very common for the officer to file a motion for summary judgement at the beginning of the lawsuit. If this is successful, the case is over. Thus, at this stage the court will construe all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. However, it should also be noted that videos (body cameras) are very useful at this stage. Time after time, the video can be the neutral evidence that helps the police prevail.

Q. What is “clearly established?”

A. A clearly established right is one that is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right. Although a case directly on point is not necessary, there must be adequate authority at a sufficiently high level of specificity to put a reasonable official on notice that his conduct is definitively unlawful.

An example may help. In 2017, the 5th decided Turner. In this case, Turner was arrested after filming the police. The 5th stated, at the time in question, neither the Supreme Court nor this court had determined whether First Amendment protection extends to the recording or filming of police. Thus, it was not clearly established and the officers received qualified immunity. Note, the 5th decided in that case that going forward a First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. Thus, officers are now on notice after 2017 as to this issue. It is now clearly established.

Q. Does the court have to decide both the constitutional violation and the clearly established piece to grant qualified immunity to the officer?

A. No. The court has discretion to talk about both in its opinion or dismiss the case based on either. Thus, sometimes you will see the court say that it is not necessary to decide whether the officer violated the constitution because it was not clearly established that the officers actions were improper, etc. If, however, the court is denying qualified immunity to the officer, they must cover both the constitutional violation as well as the clearly established prong.

Q. Does the appeal differ as to whether the district court judge granted or denied summary judgement to the officers?

A. Yes. If the district court judge granted summary judgement for the officers, the 5th will review the case from the beginning, using the same standards as the district court.

However, if the district court judge denied summary judgement to the officers, the 5th has jurisdiction to review the materiality of any factual disputes, but not their genuineness. A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. An issue is genuine if it is real and substantial, as opposed to merely formal, pretended, or a sham.

What this means in English is that if the district court judge found factual discrepancies between the parties and determined that there was a genuine dispute of facts and denied summary judgement for the officers on that basis, the 5th is not going to swoop in and overturn the district court judge. Makes sense, right? The 5th is not in a better position than the district court judge to determine which version of the facts are correct. That is genuineness of facts. In these cases, the 5th will note that it lacks jurisdiction and will dismiss the appeal. Don’t be confused by “dismissal of appeal.” The appeal is dismissed but the case continues.

On the other hand, the 5th may determine that even if there are factual disputes, it doesn’t matter because it was not clearly established that the officers actions were improper. Thus, the case can be overturned by the 5th (i.e. 5th reverses district court and grants summary judgement for police) based on the materiality of the dispute.

Finally, there is one special situation wherein the 5th will review and possibly overturn the district court on the facts. It is when there is a video. When the plaintiff’s version of events is so blatantly contradicted by the video on appeal that no reasonable jury could believe him, the 5th will look at the video and make a determination as to a factual dispute.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if anyone has additional questions and I will revise this F.A.Q. as needed.