Nahmod Law

Proximate Cause and Recoverable Damages in Section 1983 Cases

Proximate Cause and Section 1983

It is generally agreed that federal common law principles of proximate cause govern section 1983 as a matter of statutory interpretation because they are part of the “background of tort liability.” The Supreme Court weighed in on these principles in its 2017 decision in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, 137 S. Ct. 1539 (2017), Mendez involved a warrantless entry by officers in violation of the Fourth Amendment, followed by the use of deadly force that did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The plaintiff in Mendez sought damages under section 1983 for the use of deadly force on the ground that those damages were proximately caused by the warrantless entry.

In Mendez, the Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule of proximate cause and remanded. In its opinion, though, it discussed the various approaches to proximate cause in the section 1983 setting: reasonable foreseeability and the somewhat narrower-in-scope risk rule. See my post on Mendez:

Now consider Martin v. Marinez, 934 F.3d 594 (7th Cir. 2019), a proximate cause damages decision of the Seventh Circuit.

Martin v. Marinez

In Martin v. Marinez, the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the defendant police officers did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to detain him when they stopped him, forced him from his car, conducted a pat-down search, handcuffed him and put him into a police vehicle. This was an unlawful seizure that violated the Fourth Amendment. However, when they searched his car they found a semiautomatic handgun with a defaced serial number and crack cocaine. They then took the plaintiff, who they discovered was a convicted felon, into custody, which was in turn followed by sixty-five days of incarceration for felony charges resulting from the traffic stop. The charges were thereafter dropped and dismissed through a nolle prosequi motion when a state court granted the plaintiff’s motion to suppress.

However, in contrast to the unlawful stop which did violate the Fourth Amendment, the jury found that the police officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment (for false arrest and unlawful search) once they discovered the gun and the crack cocaine and arrested him—there was probable cause for the arrest and search irrespective of the initial unlawful stop. The plaintiff sought damages totaling $110,000 for his incarceration and lost business income, but was awarded only $1 by the jury for the unlawful stop. Judgment was then entered against him by the district court which had instructed the jury that it could not award any damages for time spent in custody after the officers found the handgun.

Affirming the district court in Martin, the Seventh Circuit ruled against the section 1983 plaintiff on the scope of recoverable damages in this Fourth Amendment case. The court first commented:

“We have not resolved the specific question whether a plaintiff may recover damages for post-arrest incarceration following a Fourth Amendment violation when probable cause supported the ultimate arrest and initiation of criminal proceedings, but the application of the exclusionary rule spared the plaintiff from the criminal prosecution. As Martin notes, there is a split of authority on the question of whether a defendant whose Fourth or Fifth Amendment rights have been violated can recover damages.”

The Seventh Circuit then ruled that the plaintiff could recover damages only for the unlawful stop and not for his incarceration and lost business income. There was probable cause for his arrest even though the initial stop was unlawful: this foreclosed the plaintiff’s false arrest and unlawful search claims. The Seventh Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the unlawful stop proximately caused the resulting damages for incarceration and lost business income. According to the court, such an approach to damages recovery was not only inconsistent with common law proximate cause principles but also with section 1983 policy because the potential liability would be disproportionate to the underlying constitutional violation. “[Plaintiff’s] damages award was thus properly limited to the harm arising from his unconstitutional detention before his lawful arrest.”


The Seventh Circuit appears to have adopted a risk rule approach to proximate cause in Martin–an approach that I have previously criticized–and not the broader reasonable foreseeability approach. In this connection, the Seventh Circuit said it was following the proximate cause approach of the Second Circuit in Townes v. City of New York, 176 F.3d 138 (2nd Cir. 1999), and of the Third Circuit in Hector v. Watt, 235 F.3d 154 (3rd Cir. 2000), both of which it cited.

Interestingly, the Seventh Circuit did not explicitly deal with the case before it in intervening-superseding cause terms, as it might have.

For much more on proximate cause and section 1983, see Ch. 3 of my Treatise, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 (2020)(West & Westlaw).

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Written by snahmod

December 23, 2020 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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