Nahmod Law

A Section 1983 Primer (2): The Seminal Decision of Monroe v. Pape

This is the second post for those lawyers, law students and others who are not familiar with 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The first was on October 27, 2009.

The Seminal Decision: Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961)

This forty-eight year old decision is where § 1983, enacted long ago in 1871, first had life breathed into it. The themes it announced continue to be important to this day.

Monroe involved a plaintiff’s allegations that police officers entered his home without warning and forced the occupants to stand naked while the entire house was ransacked. The plaintiff was thereafter arrested but released without being charged. According to the plaintiff, the police officers violated his Fourth (and Fourteenth) Amendment rights and were personally liable to him for damages under § 1983.

In response, the officers made three arguments, all of which the Court rejected.

The First Defense Argument: “Chutzpa” and Color of Law

The officers’ first argument was one that I have elsewhere characterized as “chutzpa.” Focusing on § 1983’s color of law requirement, they maintained that they did not act under color of law because they allegedly violated the Illinois constitution and much statutory and common law. In their view, § 1983 defendants could only be liable for federal constitutional violations where they acted in a manner consistent with state law. For this reason, the officers did not act under color of law and were not liable for damages under § 1983.

The Court, in an opinion by Justice Douglas, responded by saying that § 1983’s statutory color of law requirement was essentially the same as the Fourteenth Amendment’s state action requirement: once there was state action, there was color of law. (Justice Frankfurter dissented on this issue). And since in this case it was clear that the plaintiff alleged an abuse of state law and power that violated the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights, state action was present. It followed from this that the plaintiff properly alleged acts under color of law. To put it another way, the Court said that the scope of § 1983 was as broad as the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This turned out to be very significant as the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment expanded, by the process of incorporation, to include most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights.The Second Defense Argument: State of Mind and Specific Intent

The officers next argued that they were not liable under § 1983 because the plaintiff did not allege that they specifically and knowingly intended to violate his Fourth Amendment rights. Disagreeing, the Court interpreted § 1983 against what it called the “background of tort liability” under which a person is responsible for the natural consequences of his or her conduct. Specific intent was not required as a matter of § 1983 statutory interpretation.

Note, though, that different constitutional violations have their own required states of mind. For example, equal protection violations require purposeful discrimination, Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976), and Eighth Amendment violations require at least deliberate indifference, Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994). But these examples are matters of constitutional interpretation, not § 1983 interpretation.

The Third Defense: Exhaustion of State Remedies

Finally, the officers made a federalism argument, namely, that every § 1983 plaintiff first had to go to state court and seek whatever judicial remedies were available under state law. Only then was he or she permitted to sue under § 1983 in federal court. Again disagreeing, the Court emphasized that the federal § 1983 remedy was supplementary to any available state remedies and, consequently, a § 1983 plaintiff need not first exhaust his or her judicial remedies.

This no-exhaustion rule, a matter of § 1983 statutory interpretation, was thereafter extended to include administrative remedies in Patsy v. Florida Bd. of Regents, 457 U.S. 496 (1982). However, in many prisoner litigation cases, there is now an exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, as amended by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Pub. L. No. 104-134, Title VIII, 110 Stat. 1321-66 (1996).


Federalism was implicated not only in the exhaustion argument of the officers but in their color of law argument as well. Had the scope of § 1983 been limited in conformity with these arguments, plaintiffs would have to resort to state court, not federal court, and seek redress under available state remedies. Not surprisingly, federalism concerns continue to drive much of § 1983 jurisprudence. After all, § 1983 is a federal statute enforced by federal courts against state and local governments and their officials and employees.

Additionally, the “background of tort liability” approach to § 1983 was to become quite significant in connection with the immunities of state and local government employees and officials sued personally for damages under § 1983. In general, tort law concepts play an important, even if not necesarily dispositive, role in interpreting the statute.

Written by snahmod

November 29, 2009 at 2:24 pm

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