Suits Against State Officials for Damages for Violations of Constitutional Rights: Comparing Maryland and Federal Law
39 Pages Posted: 4 Jul 2009
Date Written: Spring 1994
Suits against state and local officials under Section 1983 are classified either as official capacity or personal capacity suits. Official capacity suits are brought against government officials who are merely carrying out their duties under an unconstitutional statute or rule. Damages in such suits are collected from the government treasury. Official capacity suits are comparable to suits against the government itself. Damages may be assessed against local government officials acting in their official capacity, or against the local governments themselves. No damages may be awarded, however, in suits against state officials acting in their official capacity. Personal capacity suits are brought against government officials who exceed or abuse their authority under state or local law. Under Section 1983, officials who exceed or abuse their authority under state or local law can be held personally liable for damages. The damages are limited, however, by various immunities. Some officials, such as judges, legislators, and prosecutors, enjoy absolute immunity from damages. Most other officials and employees receive qualified, or limited, immunity from damages. Officials with qualified immunity may be held liable only for actions which violated the 'settled constitutional rights' of the plaintiff at the time of the action. This Article will examine the scope of the Maryland rulings in suits against state officials and will compare the results under Maryland law with the results under federal law. It can then be determined in what instances these differences might lead plaintiffs to file suit in Maryland state court rather than federal court. This Article will further explore some questions left unanswered by the Maryland opinions, including: possible unfairness to individual defendants, the role of the State Tort Claims Act, the effect of the rulings on the absolute immunity of certain officials, and the application of these principles in cases involving claims under both state and federal law.
Keywords: maryland law, federal law, damages, constitutional rights, absolute immunity, qualified immunity, limited immmunity, official capacity suits, personal capacity suits, Section 1983
JEL Classification: K13, K19, K39, K49
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation