Nahmod Law

Substantial Section 1983 Compensatory and Punitive Damages Awarded for False Arrest on Sexual Abuse Charges

Sexual abuse charges are obviously very serious for all concerned. So when police officers investigate, arrest and charge sexual abuse, especially when the charges involve minors, they must be very careful. The following Sixth Circuit decision serves as a cautionary tale.

Wesley v. Campbell, 864 F.3d 433 (6th Cir. 2017)

Wesley dealt with the false arrest of the plaintiff for sexual abuse of students. In this case, the Sixth Circuit upheld, as not excessive, a jury’s $589,000 compensatory and $500,000 punitive damages awards against the defendant police officer for Fourth Amendment violations.

Compensatory Damages of $589,000 Upheld

The compensatory damages award was for lost wages, past pain and suffering and future pain and suffering (plaintiff was diagnosed with PTSD because of the arrest). As to the disputed $132,000 awarded for lost wages, the district court observed that even though plaintiff’s termination as a school counselor had occurred before his arrest, nevertheless the “red flags caused by his false arrest, and the resulting unemployment period, were detrimental to [plaintiff’s] ability to be rehired in any position, but especially in one working with children.” In addition, there was testimony about plaintiff’s inability, despite his background and qualifications, to obtain a job working with children. The district court thus did not err in refusing to remit the compensatory damages award.

Punitive Damages of $500,000 Upheld

In addition, the Sixth Circuit upheld the jury’s $500,000 punitive damages award. First, there was sufficient evidence of defendant’s reckless and callous disregard of plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights to justify a punitive damages award. Further, the award was not excessive: plaintiff suffered fear and uncertainty for over three months; he was depressed and irritable; he suffered significant economic harm; the threat of physical force directed at him was apparent; the stigma was significant; the defendant’s conduct was particularly reprehensible, especially in light of the plaintiff’s career of counseling children; the ratio between the compensatory and punitive damages awards was in single digits with the punitive damages award even being less than the compensatory damages award; and finally, the punitive damages award here was comparable to awards for similar violations.


1. Compensatory damages are available under section 1983, and federal common law rules of compensatory damages govern. These damages can consist of special damages, or out-of-pocket expenses such as lost wages and medical costs. They can also include general damages, or damages for past and future pain, suffering and humiliation. In Wesley, there were substantial special and and general damages proved that accounted for the large compensatory damages award.

2. Punitive damages are available under section 1983 against individuals, although not against local governments. Before a section 1983 plaintiff can get a punitive damages instruction to the jury, there must be sufficient evidence of the defendant’s reckless or callous indifference to the section 1983 plaintiff’s federally protected rights. Malice or ill will is not required. Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30 (1983). Note that the state of mind required for a punitive damages instruction is not the same as the state of mind required for the constitutional violation in the first place. This is the case even if that state of mind is, say, purposeful discrimination for an equal protection violation or deliberate indifference for an Eighth Amendment violation. The higher punitive damages state of mind must be separately proved. In Wesley, the defendant’s conduct not only satisfied the punitive damages standard but it was found to be particularly reprehensible. The jury’s punitive damages award was thus upheld.

See generally on section 1983 damages, Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 ch. 4 (4th ed. 2018)(West & Westlaw).

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Written by snahmod

September 18, 2018 at 11:18 am

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