Personal Liability for Constitutional Torts
Health officials should understand § 1983 actions because they may be held personally liable for constitutional torts. A constitutional tort is an action that violates the Constitution but is not otherwise tortious. § 1983 does not create any substantive rights, but provides a remedy for plaintiffs who have been deprived of rights, privileges, or immunities granted by the Constitution or federal law. Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327 (1986). A common example of a constitutional tort is a violation of one’s due process rights. § 1983 was enacted in the wake of the Civil War to enable the federal government to enforce Fourteenth Amendment constitutional rights in the South. The Supreme Court recognized the need for federal courts to be involved in the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, the Court applied a “legal fiction” in order to circumvent the Eleventh Amendment protection and hold a state official accountable for violation of a federal law. The Court reasoned that a state government official will be deemed to be “stripped of his official or representative character and is subjected in his person to the consequences of his individual conduct.”[ Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 160 (1908)] Although the official’s action is a state action for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment, the action is not an action of the state under Eleventh Amendment. Thus, the state’s Eleventh Amendment immunity is maintained while at the same time allowing a suit against the state official to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees.
§ 1983 will be applied liberally to achieve its goal of protecting official violations of federally protected rights. Dennis v. Higgins, 498 U.S. 439 (1991). The plaintiff must assert that the defendant (1) acted under color of state law and (2) deprived the plaintiff of a right secured by the Constitution or a federal statute. Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635 (1980). Therefore, some manner of state responsibility must be alleged. The “color of state law” requirement would be satisfied by alleging misuse of official power possessed by virtue of state law. For example, the Eleventh Amendment did not bar the representative of the estate of a state psychiatric hospital patient from seeking to impose individual and personal liability on the state hospital's superintendent (not the state), for an alleged deprivation of the patient’s rights. Even in this situation, it must be remembered that the state official is held liable, not the state itself. Attorney’s fees are recoverable, as are punitive damages against the individual.
As mentioned above, § 1983 actions are often brought against state or municipal employees who are acting under color of state law, including public health employees. An example is a city animal control worker who destroys a person’s rabid animal to protect the public health. Since the owner of the animal has a property interest, he may bring a § 1983 action against the employee for a violation of due process, which is a constitutional tort. However, this claim would fail if the city employee followed proper procedure, such as giving the owner of the animal notice and a hearing before the animal is destroyed. Therefore, it is important for a public health employee to abide by established procedure and law when carrying out his or her duties. Failure to do so may result in personal liability for damages. Had the animal control worker in this scenario failed to follow procedure and destroyed the animal without notice or a hearing, he may have been liable.