457 U.S. 922 (1982), 80-1730, Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 80-1730
Citation:457 U.S. 922, 102 S.Ct. 2744, 73 L.Ed.2d 482
Party Name:Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., Inc.
Case Date:June 25, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 922

457 U.S. 922 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 2744, 73 L.Ed.2d 482

Lugar

v.

Edmondson Oil Co., Inc.

No. 80-1730

United States Supreme Court

June 25, 1982

Argued December 8, 1981

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

This case concerns the relationship between the requirement of "state action" to establish a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the requirement of action "under color of state law" to establish a right to recover under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a remedy for deprivation of constitutional rights when that deprivation takes place "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage" of a State. Respondents filed suit in Virginia state court on a debt owed by petitioner, and sought prejudgment attachment of certain of petitioner's property. Pursuant to Virginia law, respondents alleged, in an ex parte petition, a belief that petitioner was disposing of or might dispose of his property in order to defeat his creditors; acting upon that petition, a Clerk of the state court issued a writ of attachment, which was executed by the County Sheriff; a hearing on the propriety of the attachment was later conducted; and 34 days after the levy, the trial judge dismissed the attachment for respondents' failure to establish the alleged statutory grounds for attachment. Petitioner then brought this action in Federal District Court under § 1983, alleging that in attaching his property respondents had acted jointly with the State to deprive him of his property without due process of law. The District Court held that the alleged actions of the respondents did not constitute state action as required by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the complaint therefore did not state a valid claim under § 1983. The Court of Appeals affirmed, but on the basis that the complaint failed to allege conduct under color of state law for purposes of § 1983 because there was neither usurpation or corruption of official power by a private litigant nor a surrender of judicial power to the private litigant in such a way that the independence of the enforcing officer was compromised to a significant degree.

Held:

1. Constitutional requirements of due process apply to garnishment and prejudgment attachment procedures whenever state officers act jointly with a private creditor in securing the property in dispute. Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337. And if the challenged conduct of the creditor constitutes state action as delimited by this Court's prior decisions, then that conduct is also action under color of state law, and will support a suit under § 1983. Pp. 926-935.

Page 923

2. Conduct allegedly causing the deprivation of a constitutional right protected against infringement by a State must be fairly attributable to the State. In determining the question of "fair attribution," (a) the deprivation must be caused by the exercise of some right or privilege created by the State or by a rule of conduct imposed by it or by a person for whom it is responsible, and (b) the party charged with the deprivation must be a person who may fairly be said to be a state actor, either because he is a state official, because he has acted together with or has obtained significant aid from state officials or because his conduct is otherwise chargeable to the State. Pp. 936-939.

3. Insofar as petitioner alleged only misuse or abuse by respondents of Virginia law, he did not state a cause of action under § 1983, but challenged only private action. Such challenged conduct could not be ascribed to any governmental decision, nor did respondents have the authority of state officials to put the weight of the State behind their private decision. However, insofar as petitioner's complaint challenged the state statute as being procedurally defective under the Due Process Clause, he did present a valid cause of action under § 1983. The statutory scheme obviously is the product of state action, and a private party's joint participation with state officials in the seizure of disputed property is sufficient to characterize that party as a "state actor" for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment. Respondents were, therefore, acting under color of state law in participating in the deprivation of petitioner's property. Pp. 939-942.

639 F.2d 1058, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion,post, p. 943. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 944.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution provides in part:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the

Page 924

United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection [102 S.Ct. 2747] of the laws.

Because the Amendment is directed at the States, it can be violated only by conduct that may be fairly characterized as "state action."

Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a remedy for deprivations of rights secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States when that deprivation takes place "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory. . . ."1 This case concerns the relationship between the § 1983 requirement of action under color of state law and the Fourteenth Amendment requirement of state action.

I

In 1977, petitioner, a lessee-operator of a truckstop in Virginia, was indebted to his supplier, Edmondson Oil Co., Inc. Edmondson sued on the debt in Virginia state court. Ancillary to that action and pursuant to state law, Edmondson sought prejudgment attachment of certain of petitioner's property. Va.Code § 8.01-533 (1977).2 The prejudgment attachment procedure required only that Edmondson allege, in an ex parte petition, a belief that petitioner was disposing of or might dispose of his property in order to defeat his creditors. Acting upon that petition, a Clerk of the state court issued a writ of attachment, which was then executed by the County Sheriff. This effectively sequestered petitioner's

Page 925

property, although it was left in his possession. Pursuant to the statute, a hearing on the propriety of the attachment and levy was later conducted. Thirty-four days after the levy, a state trial judge ordered the attachment dismissed because Edmondson had failed to establish the statutory grounds for attachment alleged in the petition.3

Petitioner subsequently brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Edmondson and its president. His complaint alleged that, in attaching his property, respondents had acted jointly with the State to deprive him of his property without due process of law. The lower courts construed the complaint as alleging a due process violation both from a misuse of the Virginia procedure and from the statutory procedure itself.4 He sought compensatory and punitive damages for specified financial loss allegedly caused by the improvident attachment.

Relying on Flagg Brothers, Inc. v. Brook, 436 U.S. 149 (1978), the District Court held that the alleged actions of the respondents did not constitute state action, as required by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the complaint therefore did not state a claim upon which relief could be granted under § 1983. Petitioner appealed; the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, affirmed, with three dissenters.5 639 F.2d 1058 (1981).

Page 926

The [102 S.Ct. 2748] Court of Appeals rejected the District Court's reliance on Flagg Brothers in finding that the requisite state action was missing in this case. The participation of state officers in executing the levy sufficiently distinguished this case from Flagg Brothers. The Court of Appeals stated the issue as follows:

[W]hether the mere institution by a private litigant of presumptively valid state judicial proceedings, without any prior or subsequent collusion or concerted action by that litigant with the state officials who then proceed with adjudicative, administrative, or executive enforcement of the proceedings, constitutes action under color of state law within contemplation of § 1983.

639 F.2d at 1061-1062 (footnote omitted).

The court distinguished between the acts directly chargeable to respondents and the larger context within which those acts occurred, including the direct levy by state officials on petitioner's property. While the latter no doubt amounted to state action, the former was not so clearly action under color of state law. The court held that a private party acts under color of state law within the meaning of § 1983 only when there is a usurpation or corruption of official power by the private litigant or a surrender of judicial power to the private litigant in such a way that the independence of the enforcing officer has been compromised to a significant degree. Because the court thought none of these elements was present here, the complaint failed to allege conduct under color of state law.

Because this construction of the "under color of state law" requirement appears to be inconsistent with prior decisions of this Court, we granted certiorari. 452 U.S. 937 (1981).

II

Although the Court of Appeals correctly perceived the importance of Flagg Brothers to a proper resolution of this case,

Page 927

it misread that case.6 It also failed to give sufficient weight to that line of cases, beginning with Sniadach v. Family...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP