502 U.S. 21 (1991), 90-681, Hafer v. Melo

Docket Nº:No. 90-681
Citation:502 U.S. 21, 112 S.Ct. 358, 116 L.Ed.2d 301, 60 U.S.L.W. 4001
Party Name:Hafer v. Melo
Case Date:November 05, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 21

502 U.S. 21 (1991)

112 S.Ct. 358, 116 L.Ed.2d 301, 60 U.S.L.W. 4001




No. 90-681

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 5, 1991

Argued Oct. 15, 1991




After petitioner Hafer, the newly elected auditor general of Pennsylvania, discharged respondents from their jobs in her office, they sued her for, inter alia, monetary damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The District Court dismissed the latter claims under Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71, in which the Court held that state officials "acting in their official capacities" are outside the class of "persons" subject to liability under § 1983. In reversing this ruling, the Court of Appeals found that respondents sought damages from Hafer in her personal capacity and held that, because she acted under color of state law, respondents could maintain a § 1983 individual-capacity suit against her.

Held: State officers may be held personally liable for damages under § 1983 based upon actions taken in their official capacities. Pp. 25-31.

(a) The above-quoted language from Will does not establish that Hafer may not be held personally liable under § 1983 because she "act[ed]" in her official capacity. The claims considered in Will were official-capacity claims, and the phrase "acting in their official capacities" is best understood as a reference to the capacity in which the state officer is sued, not the capacity in which the officer inflicts the alleged injury. Pp. 25-27.

(b) State officials, sued in their individual capacities, are "persons" within the meaning of § 1983. Unlike official-capacity defendants -- who are not "persons" because they assume the identity of the government that employs them, Will, supra, at 71 -- officers sued in their personal capacity come to the court as individuals, and [112 S.Ct. 360] thus fit comfortably within the statutory term "person," cf. 491 U.S. at 71, n. 10. Moreover, § 1983's authorization of suits to redress deprivations of civil rights by persons acting "under color of" state law means that Hafer may be liable for discharging respondents precisely because of her authority as auditor general. Her assertion that acts that are both within the official's authority and necessary to the performance of governmental functions (including the employment decisions at issue) should be considered acts of the State that cannot give rise to a personal-capacity action is unpersuasive. That contention ignores this Court's holding that § 1983 was enacted to enforce provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment against those who carry a badge of a State and represent it in some capacity,

Page 22

whether they act in accordance with their authority or misuse it. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 243. Furthermore, Hafer's theory would absolutely immunize state officials from personal liability under § 1983 solely by virtue of the "official" nature of their acts, in contravention of this Court's immunity decisions. See, e.g., Scheuer, supra. Pp. 27-29.

(c) The Eleventh Amendment does not bar § 1983 personal-capacity suits against state officials in federal court. Id. at 237, 238. Will's language concerning suits against state officials cannot be read as establishing the limits of liability under the Amendment, since Will arose from a suit in state court, and considered the Amendment only because the fact that Congress did not intend to override state immunity when it enacted § 1983 was relevant to statutory construction. 491 U.S. at 66. Although imposing personal liability on state officers may hamper their performance of public duties, such concerns are properly addressed within the framework of this Court's personal immunity jurisprudence. Pp. 29-31.

912 F.2d 628 (CA3 1990), affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except THOMAS, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989), we held that state officials "acting in their official capacities" are outside the class of "persons" subject to liability

Page 23

under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 491 U.S. at 71. Petitioner takes this language to mean that § 1988 does not authorize suits against state officers for damages arising from official acts. We reject this reading of Will, and hold that state officials sued in their individual capacities are "persons" for purposes of § 1983.


In 1988, petitioner Barbara Hafer sought election to the post of auditor general of Pennsylvania. Respondents allege that, during the campaign, United States Attorney James West gave Hafer a list of 21 employees in the auditor general's Office who secured their jobs through payments to a former employee of the office. App. 10. They further allege that Hafer publicly promised to fire all employees on the list if elected. Ibid

Hafer won the election. Shortly after becoming auditor general, she dismissed 18 employees, including named respondent James Melo, Jr., on the basis that they "bought" their jobs. Melo and seven other terminated employees sued Hafer and West in Federal District Court. They asserted state and federal claims, including a claim under § 1983, [112 S.Ct. 361] and sought...

To continue reading