Section 1983 Civil Rights Actions

This guide briefly discusses the background of federal laws related to Section 1983 civil rights actions and provides information about related books in our collection and web sites providing Section 1983 information. Visit either of the following web sites for definitions of the terms used here:

What is Section 1983?

“Section 1983” refers to 42 U.S.C. §1983, the federal statute that enables you to file a civil action for deprivation of constitutional and federal statutory rights by persons acting under “color of law.” Originally enacted in 1871, Section 1983 litigation experienced a period of dormancy, until 1961 and the landmark Supreme Court case, Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961), which gave private litigants a federal court remedy as a first resort rather than only in default of (or after) state action.  Today, Section 1983 actions most commonly involve 1st Amendment issues like freedom of speech; 4th Amendment issues like search and seizure or use of force; 8th Amendment issues like cruel and unusual punishment; and 14th Amendment claims of due process violations.

What Laws Govern Section 1983 Actions?

The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, ch. 22, §1, 17 Stat. 13 is the larger act of which 42 U.S.C. §1983 is one part. The jurisdictional authority of 42 U.S.C. §1983 is prescribed by 28 U.S.C. §1343 (a)(3). Individual state statutes of limitation will generally apply to Section 1983 claims. In Washington State, RCW 4.16.080 defines actions limited to three years. A number of cases have noted that this three-year personal injury statute of limitations applies to Section 1983 actions, including RK Ventures, Inc. v. City of Seattle, 307 F.3d 1045 (2002).

Sources of General Background Information

Sources for Specific Section 1983 Claims

Section 1983 actions can take many forms. The following sources offer general information about specific types of Section 1983 claims:

Police Misconduct:

Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law (2017)

Failure to Act:

Failure to Train as a Theory of Section 1983 Liability in the 11th Circuit (2016)


Liability Under Section 1983 (2003) by the Legal Services Department of the Orange County Department of Education.

Web Resources:

Section 1983 Outline by Office of Staff Attorneys, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Civil Rights Division guide from the United States Department of Justice.

If You Need More Help:

Guide to Civil Rights Legal Clinics & Resources in King County

Links Updated: January 2022