The phrase “civil rights” encompasses a wide range of potential types of cases. All types of civil rights cases involve the bad actions of a local, state, or federal entity or employee. Most commonly, our firm represents clients who are suing a police department, jail/prison, or police officers for violating their rights (i.e. police brutality, unlawful arrests, failure to provide medical treatment, failing to protect the safety of prisoners, etc.) and public servants (such as police officers or government workers) who have been terminated from their jobs due to “blowing the whistle” on unlawful activity taking place in the workplace.
Unlike many types of law, this is an area that very few attorneys practice in. In your online research or in contacting possible attorneys, you may have already realized that. However, at Hollingshead & Dudley, we strongly believe in government employees’ right to free speech, and we strongly believe in protecting people from the unlawful actions of the government. It may sound cliché, but our firm believes in the U.S. Constitution, and we fight for every person’s right to receive the constitution’s fullest protections.
If you are reading this page, you have probably already experienced the wrath of the government, and your civil rights have been infringed upon. To help you, our firm put together this webpage to assist you in understanding civil rights law at a deeper level. You undoubtedly want information, and we want to help you get it.
The Details of a Civil Rights Case
Almost every civil rights case is brought pursuant to the federal law 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This law is commonly referred to by civil rights attorneys as simply “1983.” The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution provides governmental entities with what is known as “sovereign immunity.” In its simplest form, sovereign immunity protects governmental entities from being sued. In order to ensure that injured people had some legal recourse against the government, however, the United States Legislature enacted 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The law, in essence, allows people, under certain circumstances, to sue governmental entities and employees for violating a person’s rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The law does not, however, protect people from all types of government actions. It protects people in situations where a governmental entity (through the actions of its employees and agents) deprives a person of his or her rights under the U.S. Constitution. In our firm’s context, we most frequently represent clients accusing the government of police brutality or misconduct, governmental failure to protect people and, most commonly, government employees who have been retaliated against for reporting violations of the law to the authorities, higher ups, or the press.
Police Brutality, Failure to Protect Inmates from Harm, and Failure to Provide Medical Treatment to Inmates
For clients accusing the government of police brutality, police misconduct, or the government’s failure to protect the client (i.e. while in jail, etc.), the client’s 1983 case is brought pursuant to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment prevents the government from depriving a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Thus, when the police overstep their bounds and unreasonably harm a person, fail to protect an inmate from harm, or refuse to provide an inmate with necessary medical treatment, the government has violated its duties under the 14th Amendment and has subjected itself to a possible lawsuit.
Make no mistake about it, these types of cases are difficult to win. This is most likely why most attorneys do not take these types of cases. Over time, the federal courts have adopted the requirement that, in order to prevail on this type of 1983 claim, the plaintiff must prove that the government was “deliberately indifferent” to “a known right.” What does all of this legal jargon mean? Simply put, deliberate indifference means that the government acted intentionally or with gross negligence. That is, a mere mistake or simple negligence is not enough to win a 14th Amendment 1983 claim. You must prove that the government deprived you of your rights on purpose or at least should have known that the government’s conduct was almost certain to result in harm. The phrase “a known right” means, in its simplest form, that almost every governmental employee would know that your specific right is protected.
Common examples of “known rights” are the right to be free from unlawful arrest, the right to be reasonably protected while in police custody, the right to receive reasonably necessary medical treatment in jail, and the right to be protected from unreasonable force at the hands of the police. Proving that the government was deliberately indifferent to your rights is only half the battle in a 1983 case. In order to recover any significant damages, you must also have been injured. While, in theory, even if you weren’t seriously injured, you could recover what are known as “nominal damages,” due to the complexity and expense of litigating these types of cases, most lawyers will not pursue such cases. Nominal damages are basically a small amount of money that is awarded due to the inconvenience of the government’s violations. If you were not seriously injured, but nonetheless believe your rights were violated, there are many not-for-profit agencies, such as the ACLU that will oftentimes pursue such cases.
In most instances, for a lawyer to consider taking your 1983 case, you will (sadly) need to have incurred significant injuries as a result of the government’s unlawful behavior. Some examples of serious injury would be serious bodily harm or death resulting from police brutality, major medical complications resulting from a jail’s failure to provide proper medical treatment, or serious injury caused by a fellow inmate due to the government’s failure to properly protect you in jail or prison.
If you believe that your 14th Amendment rights have been violated by the government, and you were seriously injured as a result, contact our firm immediately for a free consultation. At Hollingshead & Dudley, we do not judge you. We understand that good people sometimes make bad decisions. We are not concerned with the fact that you may have a criminal history or were in prison for a serious offense. The U.S. Constitution was written to protect everybody, regardless of your past or current circumstances. At our firm, we believe in protecting the constitutional rights of all people, not just people with a clean criminal history.
Violations of a Government Employee’s First Amendment Rights
Another common type of 1983 claim involves a government employee who is retaliated against (in most cases terminated) for exercising his or her First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. These types of cases come in two forms. First, the constitution allows government employees to actively participate in the democratic process by taking positions on issues, voting, supporting political campaigns, etc. Although there are some limits to a government employee’s ability to exercise free speech, most free speech is protected. If a governmental entity retaliates (including terminating the employee’s employment with the governmental entity) against an employee for exercising his or her free speech rights, the employee may have a claim under 1983 for violating the employee’s First Amendment rights.
The second type of First Amendment 1983 claim involves an employee “blowing the whistle” on unlawful conduct that is taking place in the workplace. This tends to be the most common type of First Amendment 1983 claim our firm handles. In order to prevail on this type of claim, the government employee must be speaking on a matter of “public concern.” In simple terms, “public concern” means, “Was the content of the employee’s speech of a nature that would benefit the general public?” There are many factors the court considers in determining whether an employee’s speech was a matter of “public concern,” but the most important considerations are 1) who the employee communicated to (i.e. law enforcement/an investigative agency vs. the general public) and 2) was the employee genuinely attempting to raise a matter of public concern or simply speaking for personal gain. If the employee was seeking personal gain such as publicity or in retaliation for some other issue, the employee’s speech may not be deemed protected by the court.
The last significant inquiry by the court is whether the employee’s speech was required as part of his/her job. If, for example, a public employee was required to report particular behavior, as strange as it sounds, the employee doesn’t have a First Amendment 1983 claim. On the other hand, if the employee’s speech was discretionary, the employee may have a claim.
At Hollingshead & Dudley, we have handled and are currently handling many First Amendment 1983 “whistleblowing” claims, many of which have received significant media attention. For example, the firm recently handled a case for a former municipal city clerk who reported the city council to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office (“AG’s office”) for violating Missouri’s Sunshine Law. The client alleged (and the AG’s office confirmed) that the municipality was holding secret meetings without taking proper minutes and without opening the meetings to the public, both of which are prohibited by Missouri law.
As a result of the client’s complaint, the AG’s office conducted an investigation and determined that violations had occurred. Subsequent to the AG’s investigation, the city council voted to terminate the client’s employment with the municipality. Our civil rights attorneys brought a First Amendment 1983 claim and argued that 1) reporting Sunshine Law Violations to the AG’s office was a matter of public concern, and 2) the city clerk was not required by law (or otherwise) to file such a report. The case was ultimately successfully settled.
In another example, the firm currently represents four Cuba, Missouri police officers who were terminated after reporting the Chief of Police to the Missouri State Highway Patrol for, among other things, misappropriation of city funds from the City of Cuba. Although the prosecuting attorneys’ office didn’t file charges because it wasn’t sure it could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the officer’s “speech” was nonetheless protected under the First Amendment. The police officers were under no legal duty to report the chief and engaged in protected speech by doing so.
This particular case brings up an important topic. In order to prevail on a First Amendment 1983 case, the employee does not have to actually be right that a violation of law has occurred. Rather, if the employee acted in good faith, his/her activity is protected by 42 U.S.C. § 1983. If your First Amendment 1983 case is successful, you would be entitled to, among other things, compensation for the wages you lost as a result of being wrongfully terminated. The pay would accumulate up to the point of trial. In some instances, the trial judge may also award what is known as “front pay.” Front pay is wages from the point of trial forward (oftentimes for a year or two). Judges usually award front pay in cases where the governmental entity has “black listed” or “black balled” the client, making it difficult if not impossible for the client to obtain similar work elsewhere. Both front pay and back pay are offset by wages you may have earned at a future employer prior to the resolution of your 1983 case.
Also important to note, unlike 14th Amendment 1983 claims, First Amendment 1983 claims in Missouri come under a slightly different standard than the “deliberate indifference” standard seen in other types of 1983 cases (such as police brutality). The standard in Missouri’s federal courts is what is known as the “motivating factor standard.” The easiest way to explain the motivating factor standard is in the same manner our civil rights attorneys explain the standard to a jury. Imagine an 8 ½” by 11” piece of paper. On that piece of paper is listed every single reason the government claims to have terminated the employee. It will likely include things such as poor attendance, tardiness, attitude problems, and poor work quality. Even if those things are true, you can still win your case, so long as you can prove more likely than not that more than half of the page was an illegal reason for terminating you. In the context of First Amendment 1983 claims, that means, no matter what other reasons the government is claiming for having terminated you, if a jury believes that your whistleblowing constituted more than “half of the page,” you will win your case. In short, if a jury believes that the governmental entity’s decision was predominantly based on your whistleblowing, you will win your case.
If you believe that your First Amendment rights may have been violated by your governmental employer, and you experienced severe retaliation as a result (such as termination), please contact our firm immediately for a free consultation.
Why Hire Hollingshead & Dudley to Represent You in Your Civil Rights Case?
The most obvious answer to this question is: RESULTS! Our firm has developed a strong reputation for defending our clients’ civil rights in a court of law. Civil rights cases are complicated cases to litigate and try to a jury. They are almost always litigated in federal court, and they take a tremendous amount of work, time, and money to prosecute. Our firm’s civil rights attorneys have successfully tried civil rights cases to jury verdict, and we have received favorable settlements on behalf of our clients. Although most attorneys rarely, if ever, practice in federal court, our firm has extensive experience litigating civil rights cases in federal court and are as comfortable in federal court as we are in state court.
Civil rights cases are always litigated against a governmental entity, and the entity is usually represented by powerful insurance lawyers, the Missouri’s Attorney General’s Office, or the United States Department of Justice. We all know that the government is extremely powerful. We have watched movies about the government taking on citizens and stopping at nothing to win. Although the movies are just that, movies, there is some truth to the idea that the government is very powerful, has almost infinite resources, thousands of attorneys at its disposal, and it sometimes wants to win at any cost.
Regardless, at Hollingshead & Dudley, we have never shied away from taking on powerful opponents. We have sued many police departments, municipalities, governmental entities, public officials, and counties. In other types of cases, we have successfully taken on some of the largest companies in the world. We believe in the mentality, “The bigger they are, the harder the fall.” In short, we are committed to your rights, and we will vigorously fight for your rights in the courtroom regardless of the size or strength of our opponent.
Although our firm’s success in prosecuting civil rights cases can be attributed to many things, including hard work, knowledge, and courtroom savvy, part of our success can be attributed to the firm’s “team approach” to representing our clients. At Hollingshead & Dudley, we have dedicated teams that are knowledgeable in the various civil rights laws and work together to fight for your rights. At some firms, you may have a single attorney working on your case. If you are lucky, the attorney might have a paralegal to assist him or her. At our firm, your case will be directly managed by a named partner who is assisted by other named partners, associates, paralegals, and law clerks. Each person at the firm plays a pivotal role in the success of each client’s case. In the event your case goes to trial, you will benefit from our firm’s policy of having at least two named partners try the case, as well as our extensive support staff that is intimately involved in assisting our attorneys throughout the trial.
Sometimes, due to the egregious nature of the government’s conduct, 1983 cases draw significant publicity. Our firm’s only objective is fighting for your rights. We do not seek out publicity, and understandably, most of our clients would prefer to “stay under the radar.” Unfortunately, due to the nature of these types of cases, that is not always possible. Whether we like it or not, the press is sometimes going to “run a story.” The only question is, “What will they say?” Having a civil rights attorney who is experienced in dealing with the press is critical in such situations. Dealing with the press can be scary, especially if you have never dealt with them before. The press can be relentless in their search for a story and will oftentimes stop at nothing to get it.
Rest assured, at Hollingshead & Dudley, our civil rights attorneys have significant experience in dealing with the press. Due to the high profile nature of many of our past civil rights cases, the press has taken significant interest in many of our clients’ cases. This is not always a bad thing. Oftentimes, the press is interested in a particular case because the government has harmed someone, and the press wants answers.
The press can be a powerful tool for your civil rights attorney to tell your story to the public. Telling your story not only helps the public understand your situation, it can sometimes lead to important changes that will help prevent somebody else from experiencing your same pain. At Hollingshead & Dudley, our experienced civil rights attorneys will handle every inquiry on your behalf and with your input. We will fight to tell your story and fight to prevent the government from “spinning” the situation to its benefit. After all, the government is run by politicians, and not to sound too jaded, all politicians care about is keeping their jobs.
If you believe that you may have a civil rights claim against the government, call our office today for a free consultation.