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When to Use Bivens vs. 1983? Civil Rights Lawsuits Explained

“Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents” is a legal case that established the right of an individual to sue federal government officials for damages for violating their constitutional rights, specifically the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Section 1983 refers to a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which law allows individuals to sue government officials for violations of their constitutional rights. While Bivens addressed the liability of federal officials, Section 1983 applies to state and local officials.
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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark

What is Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents?

According to Wikipedia, in the landmark case of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), the US Supreme Court established a significant legal precedent [1].

It ruled that individuals have the right to seek recourse when their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures are violated by federal entities like the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Despite the absence of a specific federal statute enabling such legal action, the court recognized an implied cause of action. This implied remedy stemmed from the fundamental importance of safeguarding constitutional rights.

The case was understood to create a cause of action against the federal government similar to the one in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the states. However, the Supreme Court has sharply limited new Bivens claims.

What is 42 U.S.C. § 1983?

Frequently known as Section 1983, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 empowers individuals to take legal action against state and local government officials who have infringed upon their civil liberties.

Section 1983 states:

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, 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 in an action at law … .”

In essence, any individual can be held accountable if they abuse their authority under the guise of the law, resulting in the deprivation of rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed to a U.S. citizen or any person within the jurisdiction of the United States by the Constitution or relevant federal or state statutes.

What is the Difference Between Bivens and 42 U.S.C. § 1983?

According to SCLG, one notable contrast between a Bivens lawsuit and a claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983 lies in their scope of coverage [2]. While a Bivens claim pertains to actions involving the federal government and its agents, Section 1983 claims address instances involving local or state officials or agencies.

Category Bivens Claims § 1983 Claims
Basis in Law Implied from 4th Amendment of US Constitution Based on a federal statute (42 U.S.C. § 1983)
Defendant(s) Federal officers/agents acting under federal authority State and local officials acting under state authority
Remedies Monetary damages from officers/agents Monetary damages and/or injunctive relief
Venue Federal court State or federal court
Requirements Constitutional violation by a federal officer, and no alternative remedy is available Deprivation of constitutional right under color of state law

Bivens lawsuits are also limited to constitutional violations, rather than violations of state or federal law, and cannot be filed against a federal agency.

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References:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bivens_v._Six_Unknown_Named_Agents
2. https://www.shouselaw.com/ca/blog/bivens-vs-1983/

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