Who Pays When Your Civil Rights Are Violated?

When you think about filing a lawsuit, the first thought that likely crosses your mind is the amount of money it will cost. You are not alone. Every day, Americans are dissuaded from filing lawsuits due to the potential of high litigation costs. Hence the common phrase: “Litigation is a rich man’s game.” While the phrase may come off as a light joke, there is a dark and sad truth to that statement: the impoverished population, and often even members of the middle-class, cannot afford to pay for a lawsuit through trial. Thus, the “rich man” often goes unpunished and, even worse, untested. However (yes, some good news), when it comes to civil rights lawsuits, there is a bright light at the end of that dark and costly litigation tunnel: Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code. Section 1983 essentially allows a prevailing plaintiff in a civil rights action to recover litigation costs and attorney’s fees against any person acting under the color of law (such as law enforcement officers) who deprives the plaintiff of his/her rights, privileges, or immunities secured by our Constitution and laws[1].

Now, let’s break down the requirements for section 1983 to apply: First, and most importantly, the plaintiff must win the lawsuit.  Second, the plaintiff must have been deprived of his or her Constitutional rights (aka “civil rights”). Third, the defendant or defendant’s agent must have been acting under the “color of law.” In other words, that person must have been empowered with authority by the government in some way, and while acting under that authority, violated the plaintiff’s rights. However, you must remember that law enforcement personnel and government employees enjoy immunity under certain circumstances (perhaps a topic for another post), which is another reason why the first requirement, winning the lawsuit, is the hardest requirement to satisfy.

The regulation of our government by its own people is both important and fundamental to the principles our country was founded on. If your civil rights have been violated, do not let litigation costs deter you. Call a civil rights lawyer immediately and understand whether section 1983 may apply to your case.


– By Ara M. Baghdassarian, Esq., Barnes Law

Ara M. Baghdassarian is an associate attorney with Barnes Law, licensed to practice law in California.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/1983