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Sixth Circuit: § 1983 Actions Classified as Personal Injury Claims

by David Reutter

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held on January 22, 2018 that civil rights actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are considered personal injury claims. With that principle established, the Court found that such a claim can survive a plaintiff’s death and allow for party substitution under Ohio law.

Keith Crabbs was taken into custody in March 2012 after a court in Franklin County, Ohio revoked his bond. That revocation was based on Crabbs quarreling with a witness outside the courthouse and appearing late for his trial on a voluntary manslaughter charge.

Officials at the Franklin County Jail failed to collect Crabbs’ DNA pursuant to an Ohio statute that mandates collection of a DNA specimen from anyone “arrested on or after July 1, 2011, for a felony offense.” The failure to obtain a DNA sample triggered an “ID hold.” A jury acquitted Crabbs, but the hold required him to undergo a DNA cheek swab before he was released.

Crabbs sued Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott in his official capacity, alleging the DNA collection and ID hold policies, when applied to acquitted defendants, violated the Fourth Amendment. Crabbs died while the case was pending and his mother moved to be substituted as the personal representative of his estate. The district court denied the motion and dismissed the suit.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit found that no federal statute or rule says anything about the survivorship of § 1983 claims when a plaintiff dies. Ohio law, however, does address that issue. Relevant to this case was a law that would allow substitution if Crabbs’ lawsuit amounted to a “cause [] of action for ... injuries to the person.”

The appellate court pointed to Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261 (1985) as guidance. That Supreme Court ruling held federal courts may look at state procedural rules, but federal rules dictate; that courts should adopt a straightforward and uniform characterization of § 1983 actions; and that § 1983 actions are best characterized as personal injury claims.

The Sixth Circuit noted that Congress has been silent with respect to survivorship issues in federal lawsuits. Thus, Ohio law guided in this case. To promote uniformity in § 1983 actions the Court of Appeals held that such cases are classified as personal injury claims; thus, Crabbs’ Fourth Amendment claim survived his death. The district court’s order was reversed. See: Crabbs v. Scott, 880 F.3d 292 (6th Cir. 2018).

Following remand, however, the district court granted judgment for the defendants on the remaining claims and dismissed the case. The court noted there was no policy at the jail that required DNA collection from non-felony arrestees on ID holds, and in the absence of a policy, custom or practice, as required by Monell v. Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), the claims against the county defendants failed. And even if the jail did have such a policy, it was not the “moving force” behind or proximate cause of the constitutional violations alleged by Crabbs.

Crabbs’ estate has appealed the dismissal to the Sixth Circuit. See: Crabbs v. Scott, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ohio), Case No. 2:12-cv-01126-MHW-KAJ. 


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Related legal case

Crabbs v. Scott