U.S. Supreme Court
HAFER v. MELO, 502 U.S. 21 (1991)
502 U.S. 21
BARBARA HAFER, PETITIONER v. JAMES C. MELO, JR., ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
Argued October 15, 1991
Decided November 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,
58, 71, 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.
State officers may be held personally liable for damages under 1983 based
upon actions taken in their official capacities. Pp. 3-10.
- (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. 3-5.
(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 - officers sued in
their personal capacity come to the court as individuals, and thus fit
comfortably within the statutory term "person," cf.
U.S., at 71, 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,
[502 U.S. 21, 22]
whether they act in accordance with their authority or misuse it.
Scheuer v. Rhodes,
U.S. 232, 243. 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. Will's 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
U.S., at 66. 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.
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
Jerome R. Richter argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs
was Goncer M. Krestal.
William Goldstein argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief
was Edward H. Rubenstone. *
[ Footnote *] Richard Ruda filed a brief for the
National Association of Counties et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil
Liberties Union et al. by Andrew J. Pincus, John A. Powell, and Steven R.
Shapiro; for the American Federation of Labor and Gongress of Industrial
Organizations by Robert M. Weinberg, Walter Kamiat, and Laurence Gold; for
Kenneth W. Fultz by Cletus P. Lyman; and for Nancy Haberstroh by Stephen R.
JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
In Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police,
491 U.S. 58
(1989), we held that state officials "acting in their official
capacities" are outside the class of "persons" subject to
liability [502 U.S. 21, 23]
under 42 U.S.C. 1983.
U.S., at 71. Petitioner takes this language to mean that 1988 does not
authorize suits against state officers for damages arising from official acts.
We reject this reading of Will, and hold that state officials sued in their
individual capacities are "persons" for purposes of 1983.
In 1988, petitioner Barbara Hafer sought election to the post of Auditor
General of Pennsylvania. Respondents allege that, during the campaign, United
States Attorney James West gave Hafer a list of 21 employees in the Auditor
General's Office who secured their jobs through payments to a former employee
of the office. App. 10. They further allege that Hafer publicly promised to
fire all employees on the list if elected. Ibid
Hafer won the election. Shortly after becoming Auditor General, she
dismissed 18 employees, including named respondent James Melo, Jr., on the
basis that they "bought" their jobs. Melo and seven other terminated
employees sued Hafer and West in Federal District Court. They asserted state
and federal claims, including a claim under 1983, and sought monetary damages.
Carl Gurley and the remaining respondents in this case also lost their jobs
with the Auditor General soon after Hafer took office. These respondents allege
that Hafer discharged them because of their Democratic political affiliation
and support for her opponent in the 1988 election. Id., at 28, 35, 40. They too
filed suit against Hafer, seeking monetary damages and reinstatement under
After consolidating the Melo and Gurley actions, the District Court
dismissed all claims. In relevant part, the court held that the 1983 claims
against Hafer were barred because, under Will, she could not be held liable for
employment decisions made in her official capacity as Auditor General.
[502 U.S. 21, 24]
The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed this portion of the
District Court's decision. 912 F.2d 628 (1990). As to claims for reinstatement
brought against Hafer in her official capacity, the court rested on our
statement in Will that state officials sued for injunctive relief in their
official capacities are "persons" subject to liability under 1983.
See Will, supra, at 71, n. 10. Turning to respondents' monetary claims, the
court found that six members of the Gurley group had expressly sought damages
from Hafer in her personal capacity. The remaining plaintiffs "although
not as explicit, signified a similar intent." 912 F.2d, at 636.
* The court found this critical. While Hafer's
power to hire and fire derived from her position as Auditor General, it said, a
suit for damages based on the exercise of this authority could be brought
against Hafer in her personal capacity. Because Hafer acted under color of
state law, respondents could maintain a 1983 individual-capacity suit against
We granted certiorari,
1118 (1991), to address the question whether state officers may be held
personally liable for damages under 1983 based upon actions taken in their
official capacities. [502 U.S.
In Kentucky v. Graham,
159 (1985), the Court sought to eliminate lingering confusion about the
distinction between personal- and official-capacity suits. We emphasized that
official-capacity suits "`generally represent only another way of pleading
an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.'" Id., at 165
(quoting Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs.,
U.S. 658, 690, n. 55 (1978)). A suit against a state official in her
official capacity therefore should be treated as a suit against the State.
U.S., at 166. Indeed, when an official sued in this capacity in federal
court dies or leaves office, her successor automatically assumes her role in
the litigation. See Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 25(d)(1); Fed.Rule App. Proc. 43(c)(1);
this Court's Rule 35.3. Because the real party in interest in an
official-capacity suit is the governmental entity, and not the named official,
"the entity's `policy or custom' must have played a part in the violation
of federal law." Graham, supra, at 166 (quoting Monell, supra, at 694).
For the same reason, the only immunities available to the defendant in an
official-capacity action are those that the governmental entity possesses.
U.S., at 167.
Personal-capacity suits, on the other hand, seek to impose individual
liability upon a government officer for actions taken under color of state law.
Thus, "[o]n the merits, to establish personal liability in a 1983 action,
it is enough to show that the official, acting under color of state law, caused
the deprivation of a federal right." Id., at 166. While the plaintiff in a
personal-capacity suit need not establish a connection to governmental
"policy or custom," officials sued in their personal capacities,
unlike those sued in their official capacities, may assert personal immunity
defenses such as objectively reasonable reliance on existing law. Id., at
Our decision in Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police,
491 U.S. 58
(1989), turned in part on these differences between
[502 U.S. 21, 26]
personal- and official-capacity actions. The principal issue in Will
was whether States are "persons" subject to suit under 1983. Section
1983 provides, in relevant part:
- "Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation,
custom, or usage, of any State . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any
citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to
the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the
Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured. . . ."
The Court held that interpreting the words "[e]very person" to
exclude the States accorded with the most natural reading of the law, with its
legislative history, and with the rule that Congress must clearly state its
intention to alter "`the federal balance'" when it seeks to do so.
Will, supra, at 65 (quoting United States v. Bass,
U.S. 336, 349 (1971)).
The Court then addressed the related question whether state officials, sued
for monetary relief in their official capacities, are persons under 1983. We
held that they are not. Although "state officials literally are
persons," an official-capacity suit against a state officer "is not a
suit against the official, but rather is a suit against the official's office.
As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself."
U.S., at 71 (citation omitted).
Summarizing our holding, we said: "[N]either a State nor its officials
acting in their official capacities are `persons' under 1983." Ibid. Hafer
relies on this recapitulation for the proposition that she may not be held
personally liable under 1983 for discharging respondents, because she
"act[ed]" in her official capacity as Auditor General of
Pennsylvania. Of course, the claims considered in Will were official-capacity
claims; 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. To the
extent that Will [502 U.S. 21,
27] allows the construction Hafer suggests, however, we now
eliminate that ambiguity.
Will itself make clear that the distinction between official-capacity suits
and personal-capacity suits is more than "a mere pleading device."
Ibid. State officers sued for damages in their official capacity are not
"persons" for purposes of the suit, because they assume the identity
of the government that employs them. Ibid. By contrast, officers sued in their
personal capacity come to court as individuals. A government official in the
role of personal-capacity defendant thus fits comfortably within the statutory
term "person." Cf. id., at 71, n. 10 ("[A] state official in his
or her official capacity, when sued for injunctive relief, would be a person
under 1983 because `official-capacity actions for prospective relief are not
treated as actions against the State'") (quoting Graham,
U.S., at 167, n. 14).
Hafer seeks to overcome the distinction between official- and
personal-capacity suits by arguing that 1983 liability turns not on the
capacity in which state officials are sued, but on the capacity in which they
acted when injuring the plaintiff. Under Will, she asserts, state officials may
not be held liable in their personal capacity for actions they take in their
official capacity. Although one Court of Appeals has endorsed this view, see
Cowan v. University of Louisville School of Medicine, 900 F.2d 936, 942-943
(CA6 1990), we find it both unpersuasive as an interpretation of 1983 and
foreclosed by our prior decisions.
Through 1983, Congress sought "to give a remedy to parties deprived of
constitutional rights, privileges and immunities by an official's abuse of his
position." Monroe v. Pape,
U.S. 167, 172 (1961). Accordingly, it authorized suits to redress
deprivations of civil rights by persons acting "under color of any [state]
statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage." 42 U.S.C. 1983. The
requirement of action under color of state law means that Hafer may be liable
for [502 U.S. 21, 28]
discharging respondents precisely because of her authority as Auditor
General. We cannot accept the novel proposition that this same official
authority insulates Hafer from suit.
In an effort to limit the scope of her argument, Hafer distinguishes between
two categories of acts taken under color of state law: those outside the
official's authority or not essential to the operation of state government, and
those both within the official's authority and necessary to the performance of
governmental functions. Only the former group, she asserts, can subject state
officials to personal liability under 1983; the latter group (including the
employment decisions at issue in this case) should be considered acts of the
State that cannot give rise to a personal-capacity action.
The distinction Hafer urges finds no support in the broad language of 1983.
To the contrary, it ignores our holding that Congress enacted 1983 "to
enforce provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment against those who carry a badge
of authority of a State and represent it in some capacity, whether they act in
accordance with their authority or misuse it." Scheuer v. Rhodes,
U.S. 232, 243 (1974) (quoting Monroe v. Pape, supra, at 171-172). Because
of that intent, we have held that, in 1983 actions, the statutory requirement
of action "under color of" state law is just as broad as the
Fourteenth Amendment's "state action" requirement. Lugar v. Edmondson
U.S. 922, 929 (1982).
Furthermore, Hafer's distinction cannot be reconciled with our decisions
regarding immunity of government officers otherwise personally liable for acts
done in the course of their official duties. Her theory would absolutely
immunize state officials from personal liability for acts within their
authority and necessary to fulfilling governmental responsibilities. Yet our
cases do not extend absolute immunity to all officers who engage in necessary
official acts. Rather, immunity from suit under 1983 is "predicated upon a
considered inquiry into the immunity historically accorded the relevant
[502 U.S. 21, 29]
official at common law and the interests behind it," Imbler v.
U.S. 409, 421 (1976), and officials seeking absolute immunity must show
that such immunity is justified for the governmental function at issue, Burns
U.S. 478, 486-487 (1991).
This Court has refused to extend absolute immunity beyond a very limited
class of officials, including the President of the United States, legislators
carrying out their legislative functions, and judges carrying out their
judicial functions, "whose special functions or constitutional status
requires complete protection from suit." Harlow v. Fitzgerald,
U.S. 800, 807 (1982). State executive officials are not entitled to
absolute immunity for their official actions. Scheuer v. Rhodes, supra. In
several instances, moreover, we have concluded that no more than a qualified
immunity attaches to administrative employment decisions, even if the same
official has absolute immunity when performing other functions. See Forrester
v. White, 484 U.S. 219
(1988) (dismissal of court employee by state judge); Harlow v. Fitzgerald,
supra, (discharge of Air Force employee, allegedly orchestrated by senior White
House aides) (Bivens action); Davis v. Passman,
228 (1979) (dismissal of congressional aide) (Bivens action). That Hafer
may assert personal immunity within the framework of these cases in no way
supports her argument here.
Hafer further asks us to read Will's language concerning suits against state
officials as establishing the limits of liability under the Eleventh Amendment.
She asserts that imposing personal liability on officeholders may infringe on
state sovereignty by rendering government less effective; thus, she argues, the
Eleventh Amendment forbids personal-capacity suits against state officials in
federal court. [502 U.S. 21,
Most certainly, Will's holding does not rest directly on the Eleventh
Amendment. Whereas the Eleventh Amendment bars suits in federal court "by
private parties seeking to impose a liability which must be paid from public
funds in the state treasury," Edelman v. Jordan,
U.S. 651, 663 (1974), Will arose from a suit in state court. We considered
the Eleventh Amendment in Will only because the fact that Congress did not
intend to override state immunity when it enacted 1983 was relevant to
statutory construction: "Given that a principal purpose behind the
enactment of 1983 was to provide a federal forum for civil rights claims,"
Congress' failure to authorize suits against States in federal courts suggested
that it also did not intend to authorize such claims in state courts.
U.S., at 66.
To the extent that Hafer argues from the Eleventh Amendment itself, she
makes a claim that failed in Scheuer v. Rhodes, supra. In Scheuer, personal
representatives of the estates of three students who died at Kent State
University in May, 1970, sought damages from the Governor of Ohio and other
state officials. The District Court dismissed their complaints on the theory
that the suits, although brought against state officials in their personal
capacities, were in substance actions against the State of Ohio, and therefore
barred by the Eleventh Amendment.
We rejected this view. "[S]ince Ex parte Young,
209 U.S. 123
(1908)," we said, "it has been settled that the Eleventh Amendment
provides no shield for a state official confronted by a claim that he had
deprived another of a federal right under the color of state law."
Scheuer, supra, at 237. While the doctrine of Ex parte Young does not apply
where a plaintiff seeks damages from the public treasury, damages awards
against individual defendants in federal courts "are a permissible remedy
in some circumstances notwithstanding the fact that they hold public
U.S., at 238. That is, the Eleventh Amendment does not erect a barrier
[502 U.S. 21, 31]
against suits to impose "individual and personal liability"
on state officials under 1983. Ibid.
To be sure, imposing personal liability on state officers may hamper their
performance of public duties. But such concerns are properly addressed within
the framework of our personal immunity jurisprudence. See Forrester v. White,
supra, at 223. Insofar as respondents seek damages against Hafer personally,
the Eleventh Amendment does not restrict their ability to sue in federal court.
We hold that state officials, sued in their individual capacities, are
"persons" within the meaning of 1983. The Eleventh Amendment does not
bar such suits, nor are state officers absolutely immune from personal
liability under 1983 solely by virtue of the "official" nature of
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is
JUSTICE THOMAS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
[Footnote *] The Third Circuit looked to the
proceedings below to determine whether certain respondents brought their claims
for damages against Hafer in her official capacity or her personal capacity.
912 F.2d 628, 635-636 (1990). Several other Courts of Appeals adhere to this
practice. See Conner v. Reinhard, 847 F.2d 384, 394, n. 8 (CA7), cert. denied,
856 (1988); Houston v. Reich, 932 F.2d 883, 885 (CA10 1991); Lundgren v.
McDaniel, 814 F.2d 600, 603-604 (CA11 1987). Still others impose a more rigid
pleading requirement. See Wells v. Brown, 891 F.2d 591, 592 (CA6 1989) ( 1983
plaintiff must specifically plead that suit for damages is brought against
state official in individual capacity); Nix v. Norman, 879 F.2d 429, 431 (CA8
1989) (same). Because this issue is not properly before us, we simply reiterate
the Third Circuit's view that "[i]t is obviously preferable for the
plaintiff to be specific in the first instance to avoid any ambiguity."
912 F.2d, at 636, n. 7. See this Court's Rule 14.1(a) ("Only the questions
set forth in the petition, or fairly included therein, will be considered by
the Court"). [502 U.S. 21,