State Immunity Doctrines Cannot Limit Liability In State Courts
Another line of cases holds state immunity doctrines cannot limit liability in section 1983 actions brought in state courts.
In the leading case, Martinez v. California (1980) 444 U.S. 277, 284 [100 S. Ct. 553, 558, 62 L. Ed. 2d 481], the court ruled unanimously a California statute which purported to immunize public entities and public employees from liability for parole release decisions was preempted by section 1983 "even though the federal cause of action was being asserted in the state courts."
In Felder v. Casey (1988) 487 U.S. 131 [108 S. Ct. 2302, 101 L. Ed. 2d 123], involving a section 1983 action filed in a Wisconsin court, the Supreme Court held that under the supremacy clause the plaintiffs' failure to comply with the state's claims filing statute could not bar their cause of action.
Twelve years earlier our own Supreme Court reached the same conclusion, holding the claim filing requirement of the Government Code did not apply to a cause of action under section 1983. ( Williams v. Horvath (1976) 16 Cal. 3d 834, 842 [129 Cal. Rptr. 453, 548 P.2d 1125].)
The court concluded: "Because the notice-of-claim statute at issue here conflicts in both its purpose and effects with the remedial objectives of 1983, and because its enforcement in such actions will frequently and predictably produce different outcomes in 1983 litigation based solely on whether the claim is asserted in state or federal court, we conclude that the state law is pre-empted when the 1983 action is brought in a state court." ( Felder v. Casey at p. 138 [108 S. Ct. at p. 2307].)
Finally, in Howlett v. Rose (1990) 496 U.S. 356, 377-378 [110 S. Ct. 2430, 2443-2444, 110 L. Ed. 2d 332], the court held a state law sovereign immunity defense was not available to a school board in a section 1983 action brought in state court when such a defense would not be available if the action was brought in a federal court.
Relying on Martinez and Felder, the Oregon Supreme Court held a state statute which limited the liability of police officers acting within the scope of their employment to $ 100,000 to any claimant for all claims arising out of a single occurrence could not be applied to an action under section 1983. ( Rogers v. Saylor (1988) 306 Or. 267 [760 P.2d 232].)
The court reasoned: "A state statute which puts a cap on compensatory damages and grants immunity for damages in excess of that limitation impermissibly grants partial immunity to persons acting under color of law for wrongful conduct under section 1983.
We therefore conclude that the [statute's] immunization of the officers from liability in excess of $ 100,000 is invalid when that limitation is applied to section 1983 claims." (Id. at p. 238.)
A similar state statute was held inapplicable to a section 1983 claim by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Thompson v. Village of Hales Corners (1983) 115 Wis.2d 289 [340 N.W.2d 704]. Relying on Carey v. Piphus, supra, 435 U.S. 247, and Owen v. City of Independence (1980) 445 U.S. 622 [100 S. Ct. 1398, 63 L. Ed. 2d 673], which set down guidelines for the immunity of municipalities in section 1983 actions, the court held a statutory limit on the amount of damages recoverable in an action against a municipality did not apply to a cause of action under section 1983.
Noting the Supreme Court had held in Carey that damages in section 1983 suits are to provide fair compensation for actual injuries, the Wisconsin court found "there is clearly articulated federal case law regarding damages and therefore no necessity of resorting to state law." (Thompson, supra, 340 N.W.2d at p. 711.) Furthermore, "state law cannot be used where its application would frustrate federal policies.
The policy behind section 1983 civil rights actions is one of compensation for actual injury. Insofar as the state recovery ceiling prevents realization of that policy it must give way." (Ibid.)
There can be no doubt Government Code section 821.6, providing immunity to public entities and their employees for malicious prosecution, "evidenced the Legislature's 'intent that a ceiling be placed on damages which may be awarded for false imprisonment, limiting those damages to the period of incarceration beginning with the false arrest, but ending when lawful process begins.' " (Asgari v. City of Los Angeles, supra, 15 Cal. 4th at p. 753, italics added.)
For the reasons explained in Rogers and Thompson, California's ceiling on damages is unenforceable in an action brought under section 1983.