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9.4 Section 1983 Claim Against Supervisory Defendant in Individual Capacity—Elements and Burden of Proof

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This chapter is being reviewed in light of comments solicited by the Committee from the public.


In order to prevail on [his] [her] § 1983 claim against the supervisory defendant, [name], the plaintiff must prove each of the following elements by a preponderance of the evidence: 

1. the supervisory defendant acted under color of state law;

2. the [act[s]] [failure to act] of the supervisory defendant’s subordinate[s] [name[s]] deprived the plaintiff of [his] [her] particular rights under [the laws of the United States] [the United States Constitution] as explained in later instructions;

3. [the supervisory defendant directed [his] [her] subordinate[s] in the [act[s]] [failure to act] that deprived the plaintiff of these rights;] 


[the supervisory defendant set in motion a series of acts by [his] [her] subordinates that [he] [she] knew or reasonably should have known would cause the subordinates to deprive the plaintiff of these rights;] 


[(a) the supervisory defendant knew that [his] [her] subordinate[s] were engaging in these act[s] and knew or reasonably should have known that their conduct would deprive the plaintiff of these rights; and

(b) the supervisory defendant failed to act to prevent [his] [her] subordinate[s] from engaging in such conduct;] 


[(a) the known or obvious consequence of a particular training deficiency or omission would be to cause subordinates to violate the plaintiff’s constitutional rights;

(b) the supervisory defendant disregarded this consequence; and

(c) that deficiency or omission actually caused [his] [her] subordinates to deprive the plaintiff of [his] [her] constitutional rights;] 


[the supervisory defendant engaged in conduct that showed a reckless or callous indifference to the deprivation by the subordinate of the rights of others;]

4. The supervisory defendant’s conduct was so closely related to the deprivation of the plaintiff’s rights as to be the moving force that caused the ultimate injury. 

A person acts "under color of state law" when the person acts or purports to act in the performance of official duties under any state, county, or municipal law, ordinance or regulation. 

[[The parties have stipulated that] [I instruct you that] the defendant acted under color of state law.] 

If you find the plaintiff has proved each of these elements, and if you find that the plaintiff has proved all the elements [he] [she] is required to prove under Instruction[s] [specify the instruction[s] that deal with the particular right[s]], your verdict should be for the plaintiff. 

If, on the other hand, you find that the plaintiff has failed to prove any one or more of these elements, your verdict should be for the defendant. 



This instruction has been expanded to include additional formulations to establish a supervisor’s § 1983 liability based on recent Ninth Circuit decisions. 

A supervisor can be held liable in his or her individual capacity under § 1983 only if (1) he or she personally participated in the constitutional violation, or (2) there is a "sufficient causal connection between the supervisor’s wrongful conduct and the constitutional violation." Snow v. McDaniel, 681 F.3d 978, 989 (9th Cir.2012) (quoting Hansen v. Black, 885 F.2d 642, 645-46 (9th Cir.1989). If the plaintiff alleges a supervisor personally participated in a constitutional violation, use Instruction 9.3 (Section 1983 Claim Against Defendant in Individual Capacity—Elements and Burden of Proof). If the plaintiff alleges a subordinate committed a constitutional violation and there is a causal connection between the violation and the supervisor’s wrongful conduct, use this instruction. 

In addition, use this instruction only in conjunction with an applicable "particular rights" instruction, such as Instructions 9.9–9.25. Such an instruction should set forth the additional elements a plaintiff must establish to prove the violation of the particular constitutional right or federal law at issue. 

When there is a factual dispute concerning whether an individual is a supervisor for purposes of § 1983 liability, the court should also instruct the jury on the plaintiff’s burden to prove the defendant’s supervisory status. 

A plaintiff "may state a claim against a supervisor for deliberate indifference based upon the supervisor’s knowledge of and acquiescence in unconstitutional conduct by his or her subordinates." Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1207 (9th Cir.2011). But "the plaintiffs must still allege sufficient facts to plausibly establish the defendant’s ‘knowledge of’ and ‘acquiescence in’ the unconstitutional conduct of his subordinates." Hydrick v. Hunter, 669 F.3d 937, 942 (9th Cir.2012).

 In Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040 (9th Cir.1989), the Ninth Circuit held that a supervisor can be held liable in his or her individual capacity under § 1983 if he or she "participated in or directed the violations, or knew of the violations and failed to act to prevent them." Id. at 1045. In Larez v. City of Los Angeles, 946 F.2d 630 (9th Cir.1991), the court approved the district court’s instruction that the jury could find a police chief liable in his individual capacity if he "set[ ] in motion a series of acts by others, or knowingly refused to terminate a series of acts by others, which he kn[e]w or reasonably should [have] know[n], would cause others to inflict the constitutional injury." Id. at 646 (citations omitted). 

In Flores v. County of Los Angeles, 758 F.3d 1154, 1159 (9th Cir.2014), the court held that plaintiffs must show that the supervisory defendant "was deliberately indifferent to the need to train subordinates, and the lack of training actually caused the constitutional harm or depravation of rights." Under this standard, the supervisor must have "disregarded the known or obvious consequences that a particular omission in their training program would cause . . . employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights." Id. (quoting Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 51-52 (2011)). 

Although § 1983 suits do not allow for the imposition of vicarious liability and a plaintiff must prove that each supervisory defendant, through that defendant’s own actions, has violated the Constitution, the factors that a plaintiff must prove in order to establish a claim for supervisory liability depend on the alleged underlying constitutional deprivation. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675-77 (2009) (finding that plaintiff needed to plead and prove that supervisors acted with discriminatory purpose in order to state claim for supervisory liability for unconstitutional discrimination); Starr, 652 F.3d at 1206-07 (explaining that because claim of unconstitutional conditions of confinement may be based on theory of deliberate indifference, unlike claim of unconstitutional discrimination, plaintiff need only show that supervisor acted or failed to act in manner that was deliberately indifferent to inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights in order to hold supervisor liable for his or her own culpable actions).