Hafer v. Melo

Decision Date05 November 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-681,90-681
Citation116 L.Ed.2d 301,112 S.Ct. 358,502 U.S. 21
PartiesBarbara HAFER, petitioner v. James C. MELO, Jr., et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

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, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 2311, 105 L.Ed.2d 45, 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, 109 S.Ct., at 2311—officers sued in their personal capacity come to the court as individuals and thus fit comfortably within the statutory term "person," cf. 491 U.S., at 71, n. 10, 109 S.Ct., at 2311, 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 whether they act in accordance with their authority or misuse it. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 243, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 1689, 40 L.Ed.2d 90. 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, 94 S.Ct., at 1686, 1687. Will § 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, 109 S.Ct., at 2309. 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.

Jerome R. Richter, Philadelphia, Pa., for petitioner.

William Goldstein, Philadelphia, Pa., for respondents.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 105 L.Ed.2d 45 (1989), we held that state officials "acting in their official capacities" are outside the class of "persons" subject to liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 491 U.S., at 71, 109 S.Ct., at 2311. Petitioner takes this language to mean that § 1983 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.

I

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, and sought monetary damages. Carl Gurley and the remaining respondents in this case also lost their jobs with the Auditor General soon after Hafer took office. These respondents allege that Hafer discharged them because of their Democratic political affiliation and support for her opponent in the 1988 election. Id., at 28, 35, 40. They too filed suit against Hafer, seeking monetary damages and reinstatement under § 1983.

After consolidating the Melo and Gurley actions, the District Court dismissed all claims. In relevant part, the court held that the § 1983 claims against Hafer were barred because, under Will, she could not be held liable for employment decisions made in her official capacity as Auditor General.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed this portion of the District Court's decision. 912 F.2d 628 (1990). As to claims for reinstatement brought against Hafer in her official capacity, the court rested on our statement in Will that state officials sued for injunctive relief in their official capacities are "persons" subject to liability under § 1983. See Will, supra, 491 U.S., at 71, n. 10, 109 S.Ct., at 2311, n. 10. Turning to respondents' monetary claims, the court found that six members of the Gurley group had expressly sought damages from Hafer in her personal capacity. The remaining plaintiffs "although not as explicit, signified a similar intent." 912 F.2d, at 636.* The court found this critical. While Hafer's power to hire and fire derived from her position as Auditor General, it said, a suit for damages based on the exercise of this authority could be brought against Hafer in her personal capacity. Because Hafer acted under color of state law, respondents could maintain a § 1983 individual-capacity suit against her.

We granted certiorari, 498 U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 1070, 112 L.Ed.2d 1176 (1991), to address the question whether state officers may be held personally liable for damages under § 1983 based upon actions taken in their official capacities.

II

In Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985), the Court sought to eliminate lingering confusion about the distinction between personal- and official-capacity suits. We emphasized that official-capacity suits " 'generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.' " Id., at 165, 105 S.Ct., at 3104 (quoting Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690, n. 55, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2035, n. 55, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978)). A suit against a state official in her official capacity therefore should be treated as a suit against the State. 473 U.S., at 166, 105 S.Ct., at 3105. Indeed, when an official sued in this capacity in federal court dies or leaves office, her successor automatically assumes her role in the litigation. See Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 25(d)(1); Fed.Rule App.Proc. 43(c)(1); this Court's Rule 35.3. Because the real party in interest in an official-capacity suit is the governmental entity and not the named official, "the entity's 'policy or custom' must have played a part in the violation of federal law." Graham, supra, at 166, 105 S.Ct., at 3105 (quoting Monell, supra, 436 U.S., at 694, 98 S.Ct., at 2037). For the same reason, the only immunities available to the defendant in an official-capacity action are those that the governmental entity possesses. 473 U.S., at 167, 105 S.Ct., at 3105.

Personal-capacity suits, on the other hand, seek to impose individual liability upon a government officer for actions taken under color of state law. Thus, "[o]n the merits, to establish personal liability in a § 1983 action, it is enough to show that the official, acting under color of state law, caused the deprivation of a federal right." Id., at 166, 105 S.Ct., at 3105. While the plaintiff in a personal-capacity suit need not establish a connection to governmental "policy or custom," officials sued in their personal capacities, unlike those sued in their official capacities, may assert personal immunity defenses such as objectively reasonable reliance on existing law. Id., at 166-167, 105 S.Ct., at 3105-3106.

Our decision in Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 105 L.Ed.2d 45 (1989), turned in part on these differences between personal- and official-capacity actions. The principal issue in Will was whether States are "persons" subject to suit under § 1983. Section 1983...

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