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Section (1983)


The Supreme Court has held that section 1983 creates "a species of tort liability" (Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 96 S. Ct. 984, 47 L. Ed. 2d 128 [1976]). Thus, the Supreme Court has held that, as in TORT LAW, a section 1983 plaintiff is entitled to receive only nominal damages, not to exceed one dollar, unless she or he can prove actual damages (Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 98 S. Ct. 1042, 55 L. Ed. 2d 252 [1978]). The jury is not entitled to place a monetary value on the constitutional rights of which the plaintiff was deprived (Memphis Community School District v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 106 S. Ct. 2537, 91 L. Ed. 2d 249 [1986]). Plaintiffs bear the burden, therefore, of presenting evidence of all expenses incurred, such as medical or psychiatric expenses, lost wages, and any damages due to pain and suffering, emotional distress, or damage to reputation. The plaintiff is also under a burden to mitigate his damages, and the award of damages may be reduced to the extent that the plaintiff failed to do so.

A section 1983 plaintiff is also required to prove that a federal right was violated and, similar to tort law, that the alleged violation was a proximate or legal cause of the damages that the plaintiff suffered (Arnold v. IBM Corp., 637 F.2d 1350 [9th Cir. 1981]).

The Supreme Court has also held that, similar to tort law, PUNITIVE DAMAGES are available under section 1983 (Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 103 S. Ct. 1625, 75 L. Ed. 2d 632 [1983]). A plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages if the jury finds that the defendant's conduct was reckless or callously indifferent to the federally protected rights of others or if the defendant was motivated by an evil intent. The jury has the duty to assess the amount of punitive damages. Because the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer, such damages may be awarded even if the plaintiff cannot show actual damages (Basista v. Weir, 340 F.2d 74 [3d Cir. 1965]). As in tort law, the judge has the right to overturn a jury verdict if the jury awards what the judge considers to be excessive punitive damages.

Courts also have broad power to grant equitable relief to plaintiffs in section 1983 actions. Equitable remedies that courts have provided in the past include SCHOOL DESEGREGATION, restructuring of state mental health facilities, and restructuring of prisons (United States v. City of Yonkers, 96 F. 3d 600 [2nd Cir. 1996]; Wyatt v. Stickney, 344 F. Supp. 373 [M.D. Ala. 1972]; Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 98 S. Ct. 2565, 57 L. Ed. 2d 522 [1978]). When the court does provide equitable relief, it usually also provides ongoing evaluation and supervision of the enforcement of its orders.

The Civil Rights Attorney's Fee Awards Act of 1976 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1988[b]) allows for the award of reasonable attorneys' fees to the prevailing party in cases brought under various federal civil rights laws, including section 1983. This provision applies whether or not COMPENSATORY DAMAGES were awarded. This provision also applies whether the plaintiff or the defendant prevails. However, if the defendant is the prevailing party, attorneys' fees have been held to be appropriate only where the lawsuit was "vexatious, frivolous, or brought to harass or embarrass the defendant" (Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 76 L. Ed. 2d 40 [1983]). In addition, section 1988 does not require that the attorneys' fees awarded be in proportion to the amount of damages recovered (City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 106 S. Ct. 2686, 91 L. Ed. 2d 466 [1986]).

Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure can lead to the adjustment of the amount of damages awarded by a jury in a section 1983 case. Enacted to encourage parties to settle their matters out of court, rule 68 provides that if the plaintiff rejected a settlement offer made by the defendant before trial that is better than the award the plaintiff ultimately received in the trial, the defendant is not liable for plaintiff's attorneys' fees incurred after the time the defendant made the settlement offer (Marek v. Chesny, 473 U.S. 1, 105 S. Ct. 3012, 87 L. Ed. 2d 1 [1985]). Under rule 68, section 1983 plaintiffs need to carefully consider any settlement offers made by the defendants.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Secretary to SHAsSection (1983) - Jurisdiction, Elements Of A Section 1983 Claim, Absolute And Qualified Immunities, Remedies, Bars To Relief