A Civil Rights Lawsuit Explained for the Layperson

The Dirksen Federal Courthouse and Kluczynski Federal Building in Downtown Chicago

By Charles Jones, FDLA Enforce Your Rights Paralegal

While explanations from lawyers can be informative, they can also be a bit confusing. Here, I’ll explain a civil rights lawsuit from the voice of a layperson. I work with the Civil Rights Legal Aid Program (CRLAP) here at First Defense Legal Aid, but I am not a lawyer. However, a lawyer did review and approve the following general information (which is not legal advice for any particular case):

Civil rights are rights that citizens have to ensure political and social freedom and equality. An individual citizen can sue a government employee for violating their civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a federal law. A 1983 lawsuit is a nickname for a civil rights lawsuit. There are also state civil rights laws, and other state laws, which may grant you more protection than the federal law.

You can sue in federal court or state court depending on the circumstances of your case.  For example, a defendant (someone accused of violating a law) may violate your rights under the federal 1983 statute but state law may give you more protection, so your lawyer may choose to file your case in state court rather than federal court (this is one of many reasons an attorney may choose one court over the other).

If you want to sue a government employee for violating your rights, you have to show that they acted under the color of state law. This basically means that due to their position as a government official, they had the authority or perceived authority to carry out the enforcement of the law and misused that authority.  

Once you speak to an attorney, they will gather the facts of your case and any supporting evidence. Next they will draft a complaint (once filed, this usually initiates a lawsuit). The complaint will usually include a number of things. First, it will name all involved parties who may have violated your rights as defendants. You will be the plaintiff. The complaint will include a statement of the facts and your claims (what and how your rights were violated). Finally, your complaint will ask for damages. Some complaints may ask for a specific amount of money or ask for the court to decide the amount that you are entitled to.

Three typical types of damages are compensatory damages (to cover your actual losses), punitive (punishment if you can show defendant(s) acted with malice or recklessly without care for your rights), and nominal damages (meaning your rights were violated but you suffered minimal or no monetary loses). You can also ask for an injunction, which directs people to do or not to do something in accordance with the judge’s decision. For example, if you sued the police for using an illegal chokehold and the court found that it violated your rights, an injunction might forbid all police officers in the city from using the same chokehold in the future.

After the defendants are served with the complaint, they must plead and answer each allegation. Next, the defendants might try to file a pre-trial motion to get your case dismissed or to get judgment in their favor. One likely motion to have the case dismissed without a trial is a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Through this motion, the defendants are saying that your complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Another motion is one for summary judgment (Rule 56), which states that even if all your allegations are true, it does not amount to a violation under the law.  One important thing to remember during summary judgment is that all allegations in the complaint have to be accepted by the judge as true. For example, if I allege that police hit me in the eye and the officer denies it, the court can’t just take the officer’s word over yours because credibility and facts are a matter to be decided at trial. Therefore, in a summary judgment motion, the court will consider the facts in favor of the Plaintiff.

The defendants will also put forward defenses to try to get the case dismissed before trial. When suing police officers, the most common defense is qualified immunity. The judge will grant qualified immunity and dismiss the case if they find that the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable in light of the facts as they appeared to the officer, and that the officer’s actions did not violate the plaintiff’s clearly established rights. Qualified immunity is most likely to be successful when there are no prior court decisions that are similar to the facts of your case.

Once you get passed all pretrial motions and discovery, the case will be set for trial if parties do not settle beforehand. Please take note that a civil trial is very different from a criminal trial. First, in a criminal trial the evidence has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil trial the standard is the preponderance of evidence (more likely than not). And in a civil trial the jury is not always 12 people like it is in criminal trials–sometimes a civil jury is as small as six people. In Illinois and in federal court, the verdict must be unanimous.

Either a plaintiff or a defendant may demand a trial by jury, as opposed to a bench trial. In a bench trial a judge will decide if your rights were violated, and if so, what damages you are entitled to. In a jury trial, a jury will decide if your rights were violated, and, typically, what damages are appropriate. However, if you win or lose, that doesn’t necessarily mean the lawsuit is over—someone can appeal, and most awards are put on hold until the appeal process is over.