448 U.S. 1 (1980), 79-838, Maine v. Thiboutot

Docket Nº:No. 79-838
Citation:448 U.S. 1, 100 S.Ct. 2502, 65 L.Ed.2d 555
Party Name:Maine v. Thiboutot
Case Date:June 25, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 1

448 U.S. 1 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 2502, 65 L.Ed.2d 555

Maine

v.

Thiboutot

No. 79-838

United States Supreme Court

June 25, 1980

Argued April 22, 1980

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MAINE

Syllabus

Held:

1. Title 42 U.S.C. §1983 -- which provides that anyone who, under color of state statute, regulation, or custom deprives another of any rights, privileges, or immunities "secured by the Constitution and laws" shall be liable to the injured party -- encompasses claims based on purely statutory violations of federal law, such as respondents' state court claim that petitioners had deprived them of welfare benefits to which they were entitled under the federal Social Security Act. Given that Congress attached no modifiers to the phrase "and laws," the plain language of the statute embraces respondents' claim, and even were the language ambiguous, this Court's earlier decisions, including cases involving Social Security Act claims, explicitly or implicitly suggest that the §1983 remedy broadly encompasses violations of federal statutory as well as constitutional law. Cf., e.g., Rosado v. Wyman, 397 U.S. 397; Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651; Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658. Pp. 4-8.

2. In view of its plain language and legislative history, the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. §1988 -- which provides that attorney's fees may be awarded to the prevailing party (other than the United States) in "any action . . . to enforce" a provision of §1983, inter alia, and which makes no exception for statutory §1983 actions -- authorizes the award of attorney's fees in such actions.

Page 2

Moreover, it follows from the legislative history and from the Supremacy Clause that the fee provision is part of the §1983 remedy whether the action is brought in a federal court or, as was the instant action, in a state court. Pp. 11.

405 A.2d 230, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 11.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The case presents two related questions arising under 42 U.S.C. §§1983 and 1988. Respondents brought this suit in the Maine Superior Court alleging that petitioners, the State of Maine and its Commissioner of Human Services, violated §1983 by depriving respondents of welfare benefits

Page 3

to which they were entitled under the federal Social Security Act, specifically 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(7). The petitioners present two issues: (1) whether §1983 encompasses claims based on purely statutory violations of federal law, and (2) if so, whether attorney's fees under §1988 may be awarded to the prevailing party in such an action.1

I

Respondents, Lionel and Joline Thiboutot, are married and have eight children, three of whom are Lionel's by a previous marriage. The Maine Department of Human Services notified Lionel that, in computing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits to which he was entitled for the three children exclusively his, it would no longer make allowance for the money spent to support the other five children, even though Lionel is legally obligated to support them. Respondents, challenging [100 S.Ct. 2504] the State's interpretation of 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(7), exhausted their state administrative remedies, and then sought judicial review of the administrative action in the State Superior Court. By amended complaint, respondents also claimed relief under § 1983 for themselves and others similarly situated. The Superior Court's judgment enjoined petitioners from enforcing the challenged rule and ordered them to adopt new regulations, to notify class members of the new regulations, and to pay the correct amounts retroactively to respondents and prospectively to eligible class members.2 The court, however, denied respondents' motion for attorney's fees. The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, 405 A.2d 230 (1979), concluded that respondents

Page 4

had no entitlement to attorney's fees under state law, but were eligible for attorney's fees pursuant to the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2641, 42 U.S.C. § 1988.3 We granted certiorari. 444 U.S. 1042 (1980). We affirm.

II

Section 1983 provides:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

(Emphasis added.) The question before us is whether the phrase "and laws," as used in § 1983, means what it says, or whether it should be limited to some subset of laws. Given that Congress attached no modifiers to the phrase, the plain language of the statute undoubtedly embraces respondents' claim that petitioners violated the Social Security Act.

Even were the language ambiguous, however, any doubt as to its meaning has been resolved by our several cases suggesting, explicitly or implicitly, that the § 1983 remedy broadly encompasses violations of federal statutory as well as constitutional law. Rosado v. Wyman, 397 U.S. 397 (1970), for example,

held that suits in federal court under § 1983 are proper to secure compliance with the provisions of the Social Security Act on the part of participating States.

Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 675 (1974). Monell v. New York

Page 5

City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 700-701 (1978), as support for its conclusion that municipalities are "persons" under § 1983, reasoned that

there can be no doubt that § 1 of the Civil Rights Act [of 1871] was intended to provide a remedy, to be broadly construed, against all forms of official violation of federally protected rights.

Similarly, Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 649 (1980), in holding that the common law immunity for discretionary functions provided no basis for according municipalities a good faith immunity under § 1983, noted that a court "looks only to whether the municipality has conformed to the requirements of the Federal Constitution and statutes." Mitchum v Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 240, n. 30 (1972), and Lynch v. Household Finance Corp., 405 U.S. 538, 543, n. 7 (1972), noted that § 1983's predecessor "was enlarged to provide protection for rights, privileges, or immunities secured by federal law." Greenwood v. Peacock, 384 U.S. 808, 829-830 (1966), observed that, under § 1983, state

officers may be made to respond in damages not only for violations of rights conferred [100 S.Ct. 2505] by federal equal civil rights laws, but for violations of other federal constitutional and statutory rights as well.

The availability of this alternative sanction helped support the holding that 28 U.S.C. § 1443(1) did not permit removal to federal court of a state prosecution in which the defense was that the state law conflicted with the defendants' federal rights. As a final example, Mr. Justice Stone, writing in Hague v. CIO, 307 U.S. 496, 525-526 (1939), expressed the opinion that § 1983 was the product of an "exten[sion] to include rights, privileges and immunities secured by the laws of the United States as well as by the Constitution."

While some might dismiss as dictum the foregoing statements, numerous and specific as they are, our analysis in several § 1983 cases involving Social Security Act (SSA) claims has relied on the availability of a § 1983 cause of action for statutory claims. Constitutional claims were also raised

Page 6

in these cases, providing a jurisdictional base, but the statutory claims were allowed to go forward, and were decided on the merits, under the court's pendent jurisdiction. In each of the following cases, § 1983 was necessarily the exclusive statutory cause of action because, as the Court held in Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. at 673-674; id. at 690 (MARSHALL, J., dissenting), the SSA affords no private right of action against a State. Miller v. Youakim, 440 U.S. 125, 132, and n. 13 (1979) (state foster care program inconsistent with SSA); Quern v. Mandley, 436 U.S. 725, 729, and n. 3 (1978) (state emergency assistance program consistent with SSA); Van Lare v. Hurley, 421 U.S. 338 (1975) (state shelter allowance provisions inconsistent with SSA); Townsend v. Swank, 404 U.S. 282 (1971) (state prohibition against AFDC aid for college students inconsistent with SSA); King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 311 (1968) (state cohabitation prohibition inconsistent with SSA). Cf. Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, 532-533, 543 (1974) (District Court had jurisdiction to decide whether state recoupment provisions consistent with SSA); Carter v. Stanton, 405 U.S. 669, 670 (1972) (District Court had jurisdiction to decide whether state absent-spouse rule consistent with SSA).

In the face of the plain language of § 1983 and our consistent treatment of that provision, petitioners nevertheless persist in suggesting that the phrase "and laws" should be read as limited to civil rights or equal protection laws.4 Petitioners suggest that, when § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 17 Stat. 13, which accorded jurisdiction and a remedy for deprivations of rights secured by "the Constitution of the United States," was divided by the 1874 statutory revision into a remedial section, Rev.Stat. § 1979, and jurisdictional

Page 7

sections, Rev.Stat. §§ 563(12) and 629(16), Congress intended that the same change made in § 629(16)...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP