Legal Memorandum: Claim against the State in RI

Issue: Under Rhode Island law, may a plaintiff present a constitutional claim against a police officer personally in the absence of a constitutional claim against the municipality that employs the officer?

Area of Law: Constitutional Law, Government Claims, Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Claim against the state; Breach of a duty owed by the state
Jurisdiction: Rhode Island
Cited Cases: 460 A.2d 425
Cited Statutes: § 1983
Date: 05/01/2000

To have a valid claim against the state (or one of its political subdivisions), a plaintiff must demonstrate the breach of a duty owed by the state directly to the plaintiff.  Laird v. Chrysler Corp., 460 A.2d 425, 429 (R.I. 1983).  Without such a claim, any claims against agents of the state or its political subdivisions must fail.  A "plaintiff could not sue the state for the tortious acts of its employees if they were personally immune from suit."  Id.  This principle applies equally to civil rights actions under section 1983.  "[T]o be subject to suit, either sec. 1983 or the implied cause of action must provide for suits directly against the state."  Naughton v. Bevilacqua, 458 F. Supp. 610, 618 (D.R.I. 1978). 

In Pearman v. Walker, 512 F. Supp. 228 (D.R.I. 1981), the plaintiff brought a civil rights action against a municipality for the tortious actions of its officials.  The court emphasized that "’so long as [a municipal official] conducts himself in good faith" he possesses a qualified immunity from personal liability for § 1983 actions.  Id. at 234 (citations omitted).  Municipal liability under § 1983 depends on the execution or implementation of official policy in contravention of the federal law, and therefore, municipal liability "may not arise derivatively from the actions of its officials."  Id. 


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