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Law School Case Brief

Hafer v. Melo - 502 U.S. 21, 112 S. Ct. 358 (1991)


Personal-capacity suits seek to impose individual liability upon a government officer for actions taken under color of state law. On the merits, to establish personal liability in a 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 action, it is enough to show that the official, acting under color of state law, caused the deprivation of a federal right. 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.

U.S. Const. amend XI 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.


Petitioner Barbara Hafer won election to the post of auditor general of Pennsylvania. Shortly after becoming auditor general, she dismissed 18 employees, including named respondent James Melo, Jr., on the basis that they "bought" their jobs. Respondents sued Hafer, individually and in her official capacity, in federal court, after she discharged them from their employment in her office, alleging that such action was in violation of 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. The respondents alleged that Hafer discharged them because of their Democratic political affiliation and support for her opponent in the 1988 election. The lower court held that § 1983 claims were barred because Hafer could not be held liable for employment decisions made in her official capacity. Respondents appealed and the appellate court reversed that portion of the lower court's decision, concluding that a suit could be brought against petitioner in her personal capacity to recover damages because she acted under color of state law. Hafer petitioned for appellate review of that judgment, asserting that state officials may not be held liable in their personal capacity for actions they take in their official capacity. Moreover, Hafer argued that imposing personal liability on officeholders may infringe on state sovereignty by rendering government less effective.


Was the petitioner immune from suits based on an act allegedly performed in her official capacity?




The Court held that state officials, sued in their individual capacities, are "persons" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 and that U.S. Const. amend XI did not bar such suits. The Eleventh Amendment did not erect a barrier against suits to impose "individual and personal liability" on state officials under § 1983. The personal-capacity suits differ from official-capacity suit. The latter is not a suit against the person or the official but rather is a suit against the official’s office, which amounts to a suit against the State itself. In contrast, the Court explained that in a personal-capacity suit, the official comes to the court as a person.  Furthermore, the Court asserted that State officers were not absolutely immune from personal liability under § 1983 solely by virtue of the "official" nature of their acts. The requirement of action under color of state law means that Hafer may be liable for discharging respondents precisely because of her authority as auditor general. The Court affirmed the appellate court.

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