Legal Memorandum: Immunity in a Civil Rights Violation Case

Issue: When are defendants immune from liability for violation of a person’s federal civil rights?

Area of Law: Constitutional Law
Keywords: Civil rights violation; Sovereign immunity
Jurisdiction: Federal
Cited Cases: 101 F.3d 334; 65 F.3d 347; 443 S.E.2d 127
Cited Statutes: 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985
Date: 04/01/2001

           Defendants may be immune from suit under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 pursuant to the sovereign immunity doctrine and the Eleventh Amendment.  In support of this argument are numerous cases standing for the proposition that certain types of defendants are not “persons” under the statutes.  See Will v. Michigan Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989).

In a § 1983 action, the trial court looks to federal law to determine issues of immunity; state immunities are irrelevant to § 1983 actions.  Dickerson Carolina, Inc. v Harrelson, 443 S.E.2d 127, 132 (N.C. Ct. App. 1994).  The Eleventh Amendment provides immunity, in damages suits only, to the state, state agencies, and state officers acting in their official capacity.  Gray v. Laws, 51 F.3d 426, 430 (4th Cir. 1995).  Local governments and local governmental officials have no immunity pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment.  Id. at 431.

The law of the Fourth Circuit is well established “that a plaintiff need not plead expressly the capacity in which he [or she] is suing a defendant in order to state a cause of action under § 1983.”  Biggs v. Meadows, 66 F.3d 56, 60 (4th Cir. 1995).  In Biggs, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit criticized the circuits that have interpreted Will as requiring that the complaint expressly plead individual capacity.  Such a view is “based on a perception that the Eleventh Amendment operates as a substantive limitation on the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal courts.”  Biggs, 66 […]

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