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United States Supreme Court

502 U.S. 21

Hafer  v.  Melo

No. 90-681  Argued: Oct. 15, 1991. --- Decided: Nov 5, 1991


After petitioner Hafer, the newly elected Auditor General of Pennsylvania, discharged respondents from their jobs in her office, they sued her for, inter alia, monetary damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The District Court dismissed the latter claims under Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 2311, 105 L.Ed.2d 45, in which the Court held that state officials "acting in their official capacities" are outside the class of "persons" subject to liability under § 1983. In reversing this ruling, the Court of Appeals found that respondents sought damages from Hafer in her personal capacity and held that, because she acted under color of state law, respondents could maintain a § 1983 individual-capacity suit against her.

Held: State officers may be held personally liable for damages under § 1983 based upon actions taken in their official capacities. Pp. 25-31.

(a) The above-quoted language from Will does not establish that Hafer may not be held personally liable under § 1983 because she "act[ed]" in her official capacity. The claims considered in Will were official-capacity claims, and the phrase "acting in their official capacities" is best understood as a reference to the capacity in which the state officer is sued, not the capacity in which the officer inflicts the alleged injury. Pp. 25-27.

(b) State officials, sued in their individual capacities, are "persons" within the meaning of § 1983. Unlike official-capacity defendants-who are not "persons" because they assume the identity of the government that employs them, Will, supra, at 71, 109 S.Ct., at 2311-officers sued in their personal capacity come to the court as individuals and thus fit comfortably within the statutory term "person," cf. 491 U.S., at 71, n. 10, 109 S.Ct., at 2311, n. 10. Moreover, § 1983's authorization of suits to redress deprivations of civil rights by persons acting "under color of" state law means that Hafer may be liable for discharging respondents precisely because of her authority as Auditor General. Her assertion that acts that are both within the official's authority and necessary to the performance of governmental functions (including the employment decisions at issue) should be considered acts of the State that cannot give rise to a personal-capacity action is unpersuasive. That contention ignores this Court's holding that § 1983 was enacted to enforce provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment against those who carry a badge of a State and represent it in some capacity, whether they act in accordance with their authority or misuse it. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 243, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 1689, 40 L.Ed.2d 90. Furthermore, Hafer's theory would absolutely immunize state officials from personal liability under § 1983 solely by virtue of the "official" nature of their acts, in contravention of this Court's immunity decisions. See, e.g., Scheuer, supra. Pp. 27-29.

(c) The Eleventh Amendment does not bar § 1983 personal-capacity suits against state officials in federal court. Id., at 237, 238, 94 S.Ct., at 1686, 1687. Will § language concerning suits against state officials cannot be read as establishing the limits of liability under the Amendment, since Will arose from a suit in state court and considered the Amendment only because the fact that Congress did not intend to override state immunity when it enacted § 1983 was relevant to statutory construction. 491 U.S., at 66, 109 S.Ct., at 2309. Although imposing personal liability on state officers may hamper their performance of public duties, such concerns are properly addressed within the framework of this Court's personal immunity jurisprudence. Pp. 29-31.

912 F.2d 628 (CA3 1990), affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except THOMAS, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Jerome R. Richter, Philadelphia, Pa., for petitioner.

William Goldstein, Philadelphia, Pa., for respondents.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).