Empowering Individuals (518) 308-8339

Civil Rights


What is a Civil Rights Case?

The US Constitution protects you from government intrusion upon your rights (both federal and state, since the original Bill of Rights was extended to the states via the 14th Amendment).  When someone's constitutional rights are violated, the civil remedy is to bring a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (commonly called simply a “1983” or “civil rights” case).  1983 cases are also sometimes referred to as “constitutional torts.”  New Yorkers are also protected from state intrusion upon their rights by the New York State Constitution which can be interpreted as being more protective than the US Constitution in certain circumstances.

When we talk about civil or constitutional rights, we have to remember that this applies to government action, not private.  The magic words, and foundation element, of a 1983 case is “state action” a/k/a action under “color of law.”  If the defendant (i.e., the perpetrator of whatever action you believe has violated your rights) is not a state actor, then you have no claim. 

Sometimes on our site we talk about employment civil rights – those do apply to private businesses.  For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discrimination by private employers (with 15 or more employees).

What Kinds of Civil Rights Cases do We Handle?  Primarily two types.

When there is a physical injury or loss of life:  e.g., a Fourth Amendment excessive force case or an Eight Amendment cruel and unusual punishment case. 

When there is a loss of employment: e.g., public employees enjoy some First Amendment protection and, if they are fired in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights, there can be recourse.  Constitutional rights can also be implicated in loss of public employment cases involving discrimination, when an individual has been denied equal protection under the law or has been denied their due process rights.

Constitutional rights can be implicated in a myriad of cases.  Because we are an intentionally small firm, we cannot handle every type of case that comes our way.  But, if you believe your rights have been violated, you are welcome to contact us and, if it's not something we can handle, we can refer you to someone who can.

What Happens in a Civil Rights Case? It Depends.

While, in the abstract, a 1983 case can often be filed in federal court without taking any action prior to the lawsuit, these cases often implicate other statutes or claims that do require taking some other action prior to filing a lawsuit. These are often called “prerequisites” or sometimes “exhaustion of administrative” remedies or procedures. The 1983 aspect of the case has a three-year statute of limitations so, theoretically, you have time to follow these other procedures if necessary.

In New York, if you want to assert a state law claim against a government entity, you need to serve a notice of claim on the entity that deprived you of your rights.  This is the most pressing deadline if an individual wants to preserve their state rights.  A notice of claim must be served within 90 days of the action complained of.  Sometimes, in especially newsworthy cases, we see reports about claims being filed against the police in a relatively short time period after, for example, a fatal arrest.  This is not people being litigious or not allowing an investigation to play out, this is people complying with the notice of claim requirements.

In prisoner cases, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is implicated.  This statute was meant to cut down on prisoner litigation by requiring inmates to utilize prison grievance procedures prior to filing lawsuits.  You can read more about that here.  The PLRA does not apply to individuals who have been released from prison, an argument we have successfully made in litigation relying on Second Circuit precedent.

Employment cases that implicate discrimination laws in addition to constitutional rights often require filing an EEOC charge in order to preserve your employment rights prior to asserting those in a lawsuit (in New York, within 300 days of the employment action complained of).  So, for example, if you believe your termination was based upon both retaliation for exercising your free speech rights, but also because of discrimination based on your race or your sex, then you are going to need to file an EEOC charge to protect the discrimination claims.  (The Americans with Disabilities Act and Age Discrimination in Employment Act also require filing an EEOC charge).  In New York, notice of claim requirements also apply to your discrimination rights under the New York State Human Rights Law if you are suing a municipality other than a city (so, for example, a county or a town).

Because of these deadlines and the interplay between different statutes, you should contact an attorney as soon as possible after the action you are complaining of.

Once your lawsuit has been filed, a 1983 case follows the same steps as any other case.  After the defendant answers the complaint, the parties engage in discovery (the exchange of documents and depositions), often followed by motion practice (once discovery is over, the defendant has an opportunity to have the case dismissed prior to trial by making a “motion for summary judgment”), and then trial. 

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