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FELDER v. CASEY ET AL.

decided: June 22, 1988.

FELDER
v.
CASEY ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF WISCONSIN.

Brennan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. White, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 153. O'Connor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., joined, post, p. 156.

Author: Brennan

[ 487 U.S. Page 134]

 JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

A Wisconsin statute provides that before suit may be brought in state court against a state or local governmental entity or officer, the plaintiff must notify the governmental defendant of the circumstances giving rise to the claim, the amount of the claim, and his or her intent to hold the named defendant liable. The statute further requires that, in order to afford the defendant an opportunity to consider the requested relief, the claimant must refrain from filing suit for 120 days after providing such notice. Failure to comply with these requirements constitutes grounds for dismissal of the action. In the present case, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin held that this notice-of-claim statute applies to federal civil rights actions brought in state court under 42 U. S. C. § 1983. Because we conclude that these requirements are pre-empted as inconsistent with federal law, we reverse.

I

On July 4, 1981, Milwaukee police officers stopped petitioner Bobby Felder for questioning while searching his neighborhood for an armed suspect. The interrogation proved to be hostile and apparently loud, attracting the attention of petitioner's family and neighbors, who succeeded in convincing the police that petitioner was not the man they sought. According to police reports, the officers then directed petitioner to return home, but he continued to argue

[ 487 U.S. Page 135]

     and allegedly pushed one of them, thereby precipitating his arrest for disorderly conduct. Petitioner alleges that in the course of this arrest the officers beat him about the head and face with batons, dragged him across the ground, and threw him, partially unconscious, into the back of a paddy wagon face first, all in full view of his family and neighbors. Shortly afterwards, in response to complaints from these neighbors, a local city alderman and members of the Milwaukee Police Department arrived on the scene and began interviewing witnesses to the arrest. Three days later, the local alderman wrote directly to the chief of police requesting a full investigation into the incident. Petitioner, who is black, alleges that various members of the Police Department responded to this request by conspiring to cover up the misconduct of the arresting officers, all of whom are white. The Department took no disciplinary action against any of the officers, and the city attorney subsequently dropped the disorderly conduct charge against petitioner.

Nine months after the incident, petitioner filed this action in the Milwaukee County Circuit Court against the city of Milwaukee and certain of its police officers, alleging that the beating and arrest were unprovoked and racially motivated, and violated his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. He sought redress under 42 U. S. C. § 1983,*fn1 as well as attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U. S. C. § 1988. The officers moved to dismiss

[ 487 U.S. Page 136]

     the suit based on petitioner's failure to comply with the State's notice-of-claim statute. That statute provides that no action may be brought or maintained against any state governmental subdivision, agency, or officer unless the claimant either provides written notice of the claim within 120 days of the alleged injury, or demonstrates that the relevant subdivision, agency, or officer had actual notice of the claim and was not prejudiced by the lack of written notice. Wis. Stat. § 893.80(1)(a) (1983 and Supp. 1987).*fn2 The statute further provides that the party seeking redress must also

[ 487 U.S. Page 137]

     submit an itemized statement of the relief sought to the governmental subdivision or agency, which then has 120 days to grant or disallow the requested relief. § 893.80(1)(b). Finally, claimants must bring suit within six months of receiving notice that their claim has been disallowed. Ibid.

The trial court granted the officers' motion as to all state law causes of action but denied the motion as to petitioner's remaining federal claims. The Court of Appeals affirmed on the basis of its earlier decisions holding the notice-of-claim statute inapplicable to federal civil rights actions brought in state court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, reversed. 139 Wis. 2d 614, 408 N. W. 2d 19 (1987). Passing on the question for the first time, the court reasoned that while Congress may establish the procedural framework under which claims are heard in federal courts, States retain the authority under the Constitution to prescribe the rules and procedures that govern actions in their own tribunals. Accordingly, a party who chooses to vindicate a congressionally created right in state court must abide by the State's procedures. Requiring compliance with the notice-of-claim statute, the court determined, does not frustrate the remedial and deterrent purposes of the federal civil rights laws because the statute neither limits the amount a plaintiff may recover for violation of his or her civil rights, nor precludes the possibility of such recovery altogether. Rather, the court reasoned, the notice requirement advances the State's legitimate interests in protecting against stale or fraudulent claims, facilitating prompt settlement of valid claims, and identifying and correcting inappropriate conduct by governmental employees and officials. Turning to the question of compliance in this case, the court concluded that the complaints lodged with the local police by petitioner's neighbors and the letter submitted to the police chief by the local alderman failed to satisfy the statute's actual notice standard, because these communications neither recited the facts giving

[ 487 U.S. Page 138]

     rise to the alleged injuries nor revealed petitioner's intent to hold the defendants responsible for those injuries.

We granted certiorari, 484 U.S. 942 (1987), and now reverse.

II

No one disputes the general and unassailable proposition relied upon by the Wisconsin Supreme Court below that States may establish the rules of procedure governing litigation in their own courts. By the same token, however, where state courts entertain a federally created cause of action, the "federal right cannot be defeated by the forms of local practice." Brown v. Western R. Co. of Alabama, 338 U.S. 294, 296 (1949). The question before us today, therefore, is essentially one of pre-emption: is the application of the State's notice-of-claim provision to § 1983 actions brought in state courts consistent with the goals of the federal civil rights laws, or does the enforcement of such a requirement instead "'stan[d] as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress'"? Perez v. Campbell, 402 U.S. 637, 649 (1971) (quoting Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67 (1941)). Under the Supremacy Clause of the Federal Constitution, "[t]he relative importance to the State of its own law is not material when there is a conflict with a valid federal law," for "any state law, however clearly within a State's acknowledged power, which interferes with or is contrary to federal law, must yield." Free v. Bland, 369 U.S. 663, 666 (1962). Because the notice-of-claim statute at issue here conflicts in both its purpose and effects with the remedial objectives of § 1983, and because its enforcement in such actions will frequently and predictably produce different outcomes in § 1983 litigation based solely on whether the claim is asserted in state or federal court, we conclude that the state law is pre-empted when the § 1983 action is brought in a state court.

[ 487 U.S. Page 139]

     A

Section 1983 creates a species of liability in favor of persons deprived of their federal civil rights by those wielding state authority. As we have repeatedly emphasized, "the central objective of the Reconstruction-Era civil rights statutes . . . is to ensure that individuals whose federal constitutional or statutory rights are abridged may recover damages or secure injunctive relief." Burnett v. Grattan, 468 U.S. 42, 55 (1984). Thus, § 1983 provides "a uniquely federal remedy against incursions . . . upon rights secured by the Constitution and laws of the Nation," Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 239 (1972), and is to be accorded "a sweep as broad as its language." United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787, 801 (1966).

Any assessment of the applicability of a state law to federal civil rights litigation, therefore, must be made in light of the purpose and nature of the federal right. This is so whether the question of state-law applicability arises in § 1983 litigation brought in state courts, which possess concurrent jurisdiction over such actions, see Patsy v. Board of Regents of Florida, 457 U.S. 496, 506-507 (1982), or in federal-court litigation, where, because the federal civil rights laws fail to provide certain rules of decision thought essential to the orderly adjudication of rights, courts are occasionally called upon to borrow state law. See 42 U. S. C. § 1988. Accordingly, we have held that a state law that immunizes government conduct otherwise subject to suit under § 1983 is preempted, even where the federal civil rights litigation takes place in state court, because the application of the state immunity law would thwart the congressional remedy, see Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277, 284 (1980), which of course already provides certain immunities for state officials. See e. g., Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183 (1984); Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978); Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976). Similarly, in actions brought in federal courts, we have disapproved the adoption of state statutes of limitation

[ 487 U.S. Page 140]

     that provide only a truncated period of time within which to file suit, because such statutes inadequately accommodate the complexities of federal civil rights litigation and are thus inconsistent with Congress' compensatory aims. Burnett, supra, at 50-55. And we have directed the lower federal courts in § 1983 cases to borrow the state-law limitations period for personal injury claims because it is "most unlikely that the period of limitations applicable to such claims ever was, or ever would be, fixed [by the forum State] in a way that would discriminate against federal claims, or be inconsistent with federal law in any respect." Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 279 (1985).

Although we have never passed on the question, the lower federal courts have all, with but one exception, concluded that notice-of-claim provisions are inapplicable to § 1983 actions brought in federal court. See Brown v. United States, 239 U.S. App. D.C. 345, 356, n. 6, 742 F.2d 1498, 1509, n. 6 (1984) (en banc) (collecting cases); but see Cardo v. Lakeland Central School Dist., 592 F. Supp. 765, 772-773 (SDNY 1984). These courts have reasoned that, unlike the lack of statutes of limitations in the federal civil rights laws, the absence of any notice-of-claim provision is not a deficiency requiring the importation of such statutes into the federal civil rights scheme. Because statutes of limitation are among the universally familiar aspects of litigation considered indispensable to any scheme of justice, it is entirely reasonable to assume that Congress did not intend to create a right enforceable in perpetuity. Notice-of-claim provisions, by contrast, are neither universally familiar nor in any sense indispensable prerequisites to litigation, and there is thus no reason to suppose that Congress intended federal courts to apply such rules, which "significantly inhibit the ability to bring federal actions." 239 U.S. App. D.C., at 354, 742 F.2d, at 1507.

While we fully agree with this near-unanimous conclusion of the federal courts, that judgment is not dispositive here, where the question is not one of adoption but of pre-emption.

[ 487 U.S. Page 141]

     Nevertheless, this determination that notice-of-claim statutes are inapplicable to federal-court § 1983 litigation informs our analysis in two crucial respects. First, it demonstrates that the application of the notice requirement burdens the exercise of the federal right by forcing civil rights victims who seek redress in state courts to comply with a requirement that is entirely absent from civil rights litigation in federal courts. This burden, as we explain below, is inconsistent in both design and effect with the compensatory aims of the federal civil rights laws. Second, it reveals that the enforcement of such statutes in § 1983 actions brought in state court will frequently and predictably produce different outcomes in federal civil rights litigation based solely on whether that litigation takes place in state or federal court. States may not apply such an outcome-determinative law when entertaining substantive federal rights in their courts.

B

As we noted above, the central purpose of the Reconstruction-Era laws is to provide compensatory relief to those deprived of their federal rights by state actors. Section 1983 accomplishes this goal by creating a form of liability that, by its very nature, runs only against a specific class of defendants: government bodies and their officials. Wisconsin's notice-of-claim statute undermines this "uniquely federal remedy," Mitchum v. Foster, supra, at 239, in several inter-related ways. First, it conditions the right of recovery that Congress has authorized, and does so for a reason manifestly inconsistent with the purposes of the federal statute: to minimize governmental liability. Nor is this condition a neutral and uniformly applicable rule of procedure; rather, it is a substantive burden imposed only upon those who seek redress for injuries resulting from the use or misuse of governmental authority. Second, the notice provision discriminates against the federal right. While the State affords the victim of an intentional tort two years to recognize the compensable

[ 487 U.S. Page 142]

     nature of his or her injury, the civil rights victim is given only four months to appreciate that he or she has been deprived of a federal constitutional or statutory right. Finally, the notice provision operates, in part, as an exhaustion requirement, in that it forces claimants to seek satisfaction in the first instance from the governmental defendant. We think it plain that Congress never intended that those injured by governmental wrongdoers ...


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