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Legal Memorandum: Individual and Official Capacity Suits

Issue: What is the distinction between suing a public official in his official capacity and his individual capacity in Shreveport, Louisiana?

Area of Law: Employee Law, Municipal, County and Local Law
Keywords: Personal- and official capacity suits; Liability
Jurisdiction: Federal, Louisiana
Cited Cases: None
Cited Statutes: § 1983
Date: 05/01/2010

The U.S. Supreme Court has explained at length the distinction between personal- and official capacity suits as follows:

            Personal-capacity suits seek to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions he takes under color of state law.  Official-capacity suits, in contrast, “generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.”  As long as the government receives notice and opportunity to respond, an official capacity suit is, in all respects other than in name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.  It is not a suit against the official personally, for the real party in interest is the entity.  Thus, while an award of damages against an official in his personal capacity can be executed only against the official’s personal assets, a plaintiff seeking recovery on a damages judgment in an official-capacity suit must look to the government entity itself.

 

On the merits to establish personal liability in a § 1983 action, it is enough to show that the official, acting under color of state law, caused the deprivation of a federal right.  More is required in an official capacity action, however, for a governmental entity is liable under § 1983 only when the entity itself is a “moving force” behind the deprivation; thus, in an official-capacity suit the entity’s “policy or custom” must have played a part in the violation of federal law.  When it comes to defenses to liability, […]

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