Limiting Employees Damages Amount from a Claim Against Public Entity
Neither the United States Supreme Court nor our own high court has addressed the question whether a state law rule of damages may limit the amount a plaintiff can recover against a public entity and its employees in a section 1983 action filed in state court.
The Court of Appeal in Novick v. City of Los Angeles (1983) 148 Cal. App. 3d 325, 332-333 [195 Cal. Rptr. 747] applied the rule in Smiddy to a section 1983 action, but Novick was decided before Asgari when the state law rule of damages was not more restrictive than the federal rule.
There are, however, two lines of United States Supreme Court cases construing section 1983 which, along with relevant precedents from other states as well as our own, convince us the plaintiffs in this action are entitled to the same measure of damages they would receive if they had sued in federal court.
In other words, the Smiddy exception applies to actions under section 1983 filed in California courts.
In addressing the issue of damages in section 1983 cases, the United States Supreme Court has expressed a clear preference for uniformity in federal and state forums.
In the leading case of Carey v. Piphus (1978) 435 U.S. 247 [98 S. Ct. 1042, 55 L. Ed. 2d 252], the court held where the constitutional violation supporting the section 1983 action had a common law analogue damages should be calculated according to the "common-law tort rules of damages." (435 U.S. at pp. 257-258 [98 S. Ct. at p. 1049].)
In Smith v. Wade (1983) 461 U.S. 30, 51 [103 S. Ct. 1625, 1637-1638, 75 L. Ed. 2d 632] the court upheld the use of a federal "recklessness" standard for punitive damages in section 1983 cases.
Responding to a dissent by Justice Rehnquist, who argued considerations of federalism cautioned against enforcing punitive damage awards against state officials ( Smith v. Wade at p. 92 [103 S. Ct. at pp. 1658-1659]), the majority pointed out section 1983 actions could be filed in state courts and, therefore, federal law overrode state policy regardless of the forum in which the suit was filed ( Smith v. Wade at p. 55, fn. 23 [103 S. Ct. at p. 1640]).
Neither Carey nor Smith relied on the damage rules of the states in which the actions arose. Rather, these cases stand for the proposition the damages available in a section 1983 action should be based on uniform federal standards.