The Collision of Personal Injury and State Action: Are Private State Torts Actionable under the Federal Civil Rights Laws?
3 Preview of Supreme Court Cases 88 (November 1991)
6 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2013
Date Written: 1991
This article previews the issues and arguments in Collins v. City of Harker Heights, on the Supreme Court’s 1991-92 appellate docket. City of Harker Heights presents two separate issues. First, the Court must decide whether in pleading an action under the civil rights statute sufficiently to withstand an early motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, an aggrieved party must allege state action, the deprivation of a constitutionally protected interest, and the additional element of an "abuse of governmental authority" in the state's actions toward the injured employee. Second, the Court must determine whether an injured state employee has a liberty or personal security interest directly protected under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause, or a life or liberty interest under Texas law, also protected by the due process clause and hence by the civil rights statute.
In the second case this term concerning the scope of civil rights actions (see Hafer v. Melo), the Court addresses the potentially wide-reaching question of whether the victim of a garden-variety tort should have a day in federal court. The basic federal civil rights statute provides that any person acting under color of state law who deprives another of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" is liable to the injured party 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Supreme Court has recognized the concept of a so-called "constitutional tort," which typically permits victims of major-league constitutional violations of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to seek redress in federal court. See Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961).
City of Harker Heights poses a great line-drawing dilemma for the Supreme Court. If a state worker is injured on the job, under what circumstances can the employee sue the state employer under the federal civil rights act? Are constitutional torts the only redressable injuries, or does the civil rights statute provide relief for other non-constitutional torts? At the extreme, the Court is confronted with a floodgates scenario ― that the decision in Harker Heights may open the possibility of constitutionalizing all private tort actions, giving litigants federal court access to resolve basically state-based tort disputes.
City of Harker Heights presents the Court with two separate but equally important questions concerning the substantive scope of federal civil rights protection and the procedural pleading requirements for seeking redress for violations of those protections. Harker Heights is an extraordinarily important case because the Court's decision could make state governments and various municipal entities liable under Section 1983 for various employee injuries on the job. The Court's decision will be closely watched to see how it defines and limits state liability.
Keywords: Constitutional torts, civil rights actions, 28 usc 1983 actions, state torts, pleading constitutional violations, Colins v. City of Harker Heights
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