Will v. Michigan Department of State Police

Decision Date15 June 1989
Docket NumberNo. 87-1207,87-1207
Citation491 U.S. 58,105 L.Ed.2d 45,109 S.Ct. 2304
PartiesRay WILL, Petitioner v. MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF STATE POLICE et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioner filed Michigan state-court suits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that respondents, the Department of State Police and the Director of State Police in his official capacity, had denied him a promotion for an improper reason. The state-court judge ruled for petitioner, finding that both respondents were "persons" under § 1983, which provides that any person who deprives an individual of his or her constitutional rights under color of state law shall be liable to that individual. However, the State Court of Appeals vacated the judgment against the Department, holding that a State is not a person under § 1983, and remanded the case for a determination of the Director's possible immunity. The State Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, agreeing that the State is not a person under § 1983, but holding that a state official acting in his or her fficial capacity also is not such a person.

Held: Neither States nor state officials acting in their official capacities are "persons" within meaning of § 1983. Pp. 62-71.

(a) That a State is not a person under § 1983 is supported by the statute's language, congressional purpose, and legislative history. In common usage, the term "person" does not include a State. This usage is particularly applicable where it is claimed that Congress has subjected the States to liability to which they had not been subject before. Reading § 1983 to include States would be a decidedly awkward way of expressing such a congressional intent. The statute's language also falls short of satisfying the ordinary rule of statutory construction that Congress must make its intention to alter the constitutional balance between the States and the Federal Government unmistakably clear in a statute's language. Moreover, the doctrine of sovereign immunity is one of the well-established common-law immunities and defenses that Congress did not intend to override in enacting § 1983. Cf. Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 101 S.Ct. 2748, 69 L.Ed.2d 616; Railroad Co. v. Tennessee, 101 U.S. 337, 25 L.Ed. 960. The "Dictionary Act" provision that a "person" includes "bodies politic and corporate" fails to evidence such an intent. This Court's ruling in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611—which held that a municipality is a person under § 1983—is not to the contrary, since States are protected by the Eleventh Amendment while municipalities are not. Pp. 63-70.

(b) A suit against state officials in their official capacities is not a suit against the officials but rather is a suit against the officials' offices and, thus, is no different from a suit against the State itself. Pp. 70-71.

428 Mich. 540, 410 N.W.2d 749, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 71. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 87.

William Burnham, Detroit, Mich., for petitioner.

George H. Weller, East Lansing, Mich., for respondents.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a State, or an official of the State while acting in his or her official capacity, is a "person" within the meaning of Rev.Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Petitioner Ray Will filed suit in Michigan Circuit Court alleging various violations of the United States and Michigan Constitutions as grounds for a claim under § 1983.1 He alleged that he had been denied a promotion to a data systems analyst position with the Department of State Police for an improper reason, that is, because his brother had been a student activist and the subject of a "red squad" file maintained by respondent. Named as defendants were the Department of State Police and the Director of State Police in his official capacity, also a respondent here.2

The Circuit Court remanded the case to the Michigan Civil Service Commission for a grievance hearing. While the grievance was pending, petitioner filed suit in the Michigan Court of Claims raising an essentially identical § 1983 claim. The Civil Service Commission ultimately found in petitioner's favor, ruling that respondents had refused to promote petitioner because of "partisan considerations." App. 46. On the basis of that finding, the state-court judge, acting in both the Circuit Court and the Court of Claims cases, concluded that petitioner had established a violation of the United States Constitution. The judge held that the Circuit Court action was barred under state law but that the Claims Court action could go forward. The judge also ruled that respondents were persons for purposes of § 1983.

The Michigan Court of Appeals vacated the judgment against the Department of State Police, holding that a State is not a person under § 1983, but remanded the case for determination of the possible immunity of the Director of State Police from liability for damages. The Michigan Supreme Court granted discretionary review and affirmed the Court of Appeals in part and reversed in part. Smith v. Department of Pub. Health, 428 Mich. 540, 410 N.W.2d 749 (1987). The Supreme Court agreed that the State itself is not a person under § 1983, but held that a state official acting in his or her official capacity also is not such a person.

The Michigan Supreme Court's holding that a State is not a person under § 1983 conflicts with a number of state- and federal-court decisions to the contrary.3 We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. 485 U.S. 1005, 108 S.Ct. 1466, 99 L.Ed.2d 696 (1988).

Prior to Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), the question whether a State is a person within the meaning of § 1983 had been answered by this Court in the negative. In Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 187-191, 81 S.Ct. 473, 484-486, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961), the Court had held that a municipality was not a person under § 1983. "[T]hat being the case," we reasoned, § 1983 "could not have been intended to include States as parties defendant." Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 452, 96 S.Ct. 2666, 2669, 49 L.Ed.2d 614 (1976).

But in Monell, the Court overruled Monroe, holding that a municipality was a person under § 1983. 436 U.S., at 690, 98 S.Ct., at 2035. Since then, various members of the Court have debated whether a State is a person within the meaning of § 1983, see Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 700-704, 98 S.Ct. 2565, 2578-2581, 57 L.Ed.2d 522 (1978) (BRENNAN, J., concurring); id., at 708, n. 6, 98 S.Ct., at 2583 n. 6 (Powell, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part), but this Court has never expressly dealt with that issue.4

Some courts, including the Michigan Supreme Court here, have construed our decision in Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 99 S.Ct. 1139, 59 L.Ed.2d 358 (1979), as holding by implication that a State is not a person under § 1983. See Smith v. Department of Pub. Health, supra, 428 Mich., at 581, 410 N.W.2d, at 767. See also, e.g., State v. Green, 633 P.2d 1381, 1382 (Alaska 1981); Woodbridge v. Worcester State Hospital, 384 Mass. 38, 44-45, n. 7, 423 N.E.2d 782, 786, n. 7 (1981); Edgar v. State, 92 Wash.2d 217, 221, 595 P.2d 534, 537 (1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1077, 100 S.Ct. 1026, 62 L.Ed.2d 760 (1980). Quern held that § 1983 does not override a State's Eleventh Amendment immunity, a holding that the concurrence sugges ed was "patently dicta" to the effect that a State is not a person, 440 U.S., at 350, 99 S.Ct. 1139, 59 L.Ed.2d 358 (BRENNAN, J., concurring in judgment).

Petitioner filed the present § 1983 actions in Michigan state court, which places the question whether a State is a person under § 1983 squarely before us since the Eleventh Amend- ment does not apply in state courts. Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 9, n. 7, 100 S.Ct. 2502, 2507, n. 7, 65 L.Ed.2d 555 (1980). For the reasons that follow, we reaffirm today what we had concluded prior to Monell and what some have considered implicit in Quern: that a State is not a person within the meaning of § 1983.

We observe initially that if a State is a "person" within the meaning of § 1983, the section is to be read as saying that "every person, including a State, who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects. . . ." That would be a decidedly awkward way of expressing an intent to subject the States to liability. At the very least, reading the statute in this way is not so clearly indicated that it provides reason to depart from the often-expressed understanding that " 'in common usage, the term 'person' does not include the sovereign, [and] statutes employing the [word] are ordinarily construed to exclude it.' " Wilson v. Omaha Tribe, 442 U.S. 653, 667, 99 S.Ct. 2529, 2537, 61 L.Ed.2d 153 (1979) (quoting United States v. Cooper Corp., 312 U.S. 600, 604, 61 S.Ct. 742, 743, 85 L.Ed. 1071 (1941)). See also United States v. Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258, 275, 67 S.Ct. 677, 687, 91 L.Ed. 884 (1947).

This approach is particularly applicable where it is claimed that Congress has subjected the States to liability to which they had not been subject before. In Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe, supra, we followed this rule in construing the phrase "white person" contained in 25 U.S.C. § 194, enacted as Act of June 30, 1834, 4 Stat. 729, as not including the "sovereign States of the Union." 442 U.S., at 667, 99 S.Ct., at 2537. This common usage of the term "person" provides a strong indication that "person" as used in § 1983 likewise does not include a State.5 The language of § 1983 also falls far short of satisfying the ordinary...

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