As a civil rights attorney, my job focus is singular – to vindicate the constitutional rights of those who have had those same rights trampled upon by government actors.
When my client and I pursue a case against a government actor, the statute that we almost always sue under is 42. U.S.C. § 1983 (“1983”). § 1983 authorizes aggrieved persons to bring suit against “every person” who violates their constitutional rights under “color of state law.” Courts have defined the phrase “color of state law” to apply to government or state actors. § 1983 was originally known and passed as Section 1 of the Klu Klutz Klan Act of 1871. Although § 1983 is silent on race, Congress’s original purpose in passing § 1983 was to enforce the constitutional rights – rights spelled out in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments – of recently freed black slaves.
However, persons of any color may invoke § 1983 if they believe that a state actor has violated one of their constitutional rights. Our law office routinely handles § 1983 cases for our clients in a variety of settings: clients claiming that a police officer used excessive force during their arrest (Fourth Amendment Violation); clients who were inmates at a correctional facility and had their serious and obvious medical needs ignored by correctional staff (Eighth Amendment Violation); and clients who were subject to an illegal search or seizure by law enforcement (Fourth Amendment Violation).
Civil rights lawyers like myself are sometimes maligned for taking on only “high damage” cases that significantly increase their profits. These are oftentimes described as cases that result in loss of life or permanent physical injury to the aggrieved party. Some of this criticism may be warranted, but I would like to think that our law firm is different in our approach of deciding whether to take on a civil rights case. I will tell you that the number one factor that we look at in deciding whether to take on a civil rights case is not the gravity of the physical injury, but the gravity of the constitutional wrong. Now to be fair, the gravity of the physical injury does play an important role in our ultimate decision of whether to take on a case, but it is not the first factor that we look at.
The reason for this is simple: there are numerous instances where a state actor has flagrantly violated someone’s constitutional rights, but the rights violation did not result in a permanent physical injury. Do these individuals not deserve justice? Do these individuals not deserve to have a lawyer fight for them to help hold the state actor that wronged them accountable? Our law office believes that they do, which is why we will not hesitate to take on a “low damage” civil rights case where the constitutional wrong done by the state actor was flagrant and extreme.
As an example, we recently helped out a young African American woman whose vehicle was seized by the police for over four months even though she had not been arrested or charged with a criminal offense. During this time, she could not get to work or drive her children to school. After bringing a motion in state court, we were able to force the police department to release her vehicle. We then were able to successfully sue the police department that seized her vehicle for damages. Many civil rights attorneys would not take on a case like this one, viewing it as a “low damage” case. But our law office felt duty bound to fight for this woman whose constitutional rights had been violated
What eases the financial burden of civil rights attorneys who take on “low damage” cases is a specific component of § 1983’s statutory scheme. 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (“§1988”) works in tandem with § 1983 and allows attorneys who prevail in their client’s § 1983 cases to recover their “reasonable” attorney fees. Thus, § 1988 provides a key financial incentive for civil rights attorneys to take on “low damage” cases. Because of § 1988, civil rights attorneys have the comfort of knowing that if they can prove that their client’s constitutional rights were violated and caused some injury, even if the damages are nominal, they can still be paid for the significant time, costs and effort they expended to win their client’s case.
Personally, because of § 1988, I feel duty bound to help individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated, but the violation did not result in death or a life altering physical injury. As an attorney and small business owner, forecasting a reasonable profit on the cases I handle must be an important consideration, but it should not be the end all consideration. The greatest contribution I can make in this area of the law is doing everything within my power to hold state actors accountable for their constitutional wrongdoings, whether this results in a seven-figure attorney fee or not.
At the Magna Law Firm, we focus our practice on helping individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated by police officers, or corrections officers. If you are a loved one have had your rights violated in this manner, please contact our law office. We pursue these cases on a contingency fee basis which means that we do not get paid unless we win your case.