Skip to main content

Interstate Commission for Adult Offender Supervision | Ensuring Public Safety for the 21st Century

Bench Book - 5.3.1.1 Official Capacity versus Individual Capacity

Eleventh Amendment immunity also extends to state government officers and employees to the extent that they are sued in their official capacity, but not to suits against them in their individual capacity. The distinction between official-capacity and individual-capacity lawsuits can be confusing.

Individual-capacity lawsuits are those seeking to impose personal liability on government officers or employees for actions taken under color of state law as a part of their government work. They are typically suits seeking damages to be paid from the pocket of the officer himself or herself (or from applicable insurance policies). Officers and employees are not immune to such suits under the Eleventh Amendment, but they might enjoy one of the common-law immunities discussed below.

By contrast, official-capacity lawsuits are actually suits against the entity of which the officer is an agent (the state or state agency), seeking a recovery from the state treasury. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985). The naming of a specific officer in his or her official capacity is merely a pleading device that offers a way around the language of the Eleventh Amendment; it does not necessarily pierce the immunity afforded by the amendment. State officers and employees sued in their official capacity are immune from lawsuits seeking money damages. Ford Motor Co. v. Dep’t of the Treas., 323 U.S. 459, 464 (1945) (“[W]hen the action is in essence one for the recovery of money from the state, the state is the real, substantial party in interest and is entitled to invoke its sovereign immunity from suit even though individual officials are nominal defendants.”). Applying that rule to ICAOS, suits seeking monetary damages from state probation officers and administrators acting in their official capacity typically will readily be dismissed on Eleventh Amendment grounds. See, e.g., Hankins v. Burton, No. 4:11-cv-4048-SLD-JAG, 2012 WL 3201947, at *1, *6 (C.D. Ill. Aug. 3 2012) (“Thus, as a state agency . . . . [t]he Missouri Department of Correction is therefore immune from this suit.”).

Importantly, the Eleventh Amendment does not preclude suits against state officers and employees in their official capacity seeking prospective injunctive relief—that is, a court order requiring the defendant to take, or to refrain from taking, certain actions to protect the plaintiff’s rights. Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908). Thus, a federal court will hear an offender’s suit seeking an injunction of an ongoing constitutional violation. Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651 (1974).

References