The question presented is whether 42 U. S. C. § 1988 allows attorney's fees to be recovered from a governmental entity when a plaintiff sues governmental employees only in their personal capacities and prevails.
On November 7, 1979, a Kentucky state trooper was murdered. Suspicion quickly focused on Clyde Graham, whose stepmother's car was found near the site of the slaying and whose driver's license and billfold were discovered in nearby bushes. That evening, 30 to 40 city, county, and state police officers converged on the house of Graham's father in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Without a warrant, the police entered the home twice and eventually arrested all the occupants, who are the six respondents here. Graham was not among them.
Alleging a deprivation of a number of federal rights, respondents filed suit in Federal District Court.
On the second day of trial, the case was settled for $60,000.
We granted certiorari to address the proposition, rejected by at least two Courts of Appeals,
This case requires us to unravel once again the distinctions between personal- and official-capacity suits, see Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464 (1985), this time in the context of fee awards under 42 U. S. C. § 1988. The relevant portion of § 1988, enacted as the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2641, provides:
We recognized as much in Supreme Court of Virginia, supra. There a three-judge District Court had found the Virginia Supreme Court and its chief justice in his official capacity liable for promulgating, and refusing to amend, a State Bar Code that violated the First Amendment. The District Court also awarded fees against these defendants pursuant to § 1988. We held that absolute legislative immunity shielded these defendants for acts taken in their legislative capacity. We then vacated the fee award, stating that we found nothing "in the legislative history of the Act to suggest that Congress intended to permit an award of attorney's fees to be premised on acts for which defendants would enjoy absolute legislative immunity." 446 U. S., at 738.
Proper application of this principle in damages actions against public officials requires careful adherence to the distinction between personal- and official-capacity suits.
Personal-capacity suits seek to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions he takes under color of state law. See, e. g., Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 237-238 (1974). Official-capacity suits, in contrast, "generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent." Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690, n. 55
On the merits, to establish personal liability in a § 1983 action, it is enough to show that the official, acting under color of state law, caused the deprivation of a federal right. See, e. g., Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961). More is required in an official-capacity action, however, for a governmental entity is liable under § 1983 only when the entity itself is a " `moving force' " behind the deprivation, Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 326 (1981) (quoting Monell, supra, at 694); thus, in an official-capacity suit the entity's "policy or custom" must have played a part in the violation of federal law. Monell, supra; Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 817-818 (1985); id., at 827-828 (BRENNAN, J., concurring in judgment).
With this distinction in mind, it is clear that a suit against a government official in his or her personal capacity cannot lead to imposition of fee liability upon the governmental entity. A victory in a personal-capacity action is a victory against the individual defendant, rather than against the
Such a result also would be inconsistent with the statement in Monell, supra, that a municipality cannot be made liable under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 on a respondeat superior basis. Nothing in the history of § 1988, a statute designed to make effective the remedies created in § 1983 and similar statutes, suggests that fee liability, unlike merits liability, was intended to be imposed on a respondeat superior basis. On the contrary, just as Congress rejected making § 1983 a "mutual insurance" scheme, 436 U. S., at 694, Congress sought to avoid making § 1988 a " `relief fund for lawyers.' " Hensley, supra, at 446 (opinion of BRENNAN, J.) (quoting 122 Cong. Rec. 33314 (1976) (remarks of Sen. Kennedy)). Section 1988 does not guarantee that lawyers will recover fees anytime their clients sue a government official in his personal capacity, with the governmental entity as ultimate insurer. Instead, fee liability runs with merits liability; if federal law does not make the government substantively liable on a respondeat superior basis, the government similarly is not liable for fees on that basis under § 1988. Section 1988 simply does not create fee liability where merits liability is nonexistent.
We conclude that this case was necessarily litigated as a personal-capacity action and that the Court of Appeals therefore erred in awarding fees against the Commonwealth of
The Court has held that, absent waiver by the State or valid congressional override, the Eleventh Amendment bars a damages action against a State in federal court.
Despite the Court of Appeals' contrary view, the result we reach today is fully consistent with Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978). Hutto holds only that, when a State in a § 1983 action has been prevailed against for relief on the merits, either because the State was a proper party defendant or because state officials properly were sued in their official capacity, fees may also be available from the State under § 1988. Hutto does not alter the basic philosophy of
Respondents vigorously protest that this holding will "effectively destro[y]" § 1988 in cases such as this one. Brief for Respondents 19. This fear is overstated. Fees are unavailable only where a governmental entity cannot be held liable on the merits; today we simply apply the fee-shifting provisions of § 1988 against a pre-existing background of substantive liability rules.
Only in an official-capacity action is a plaintiff who prevails entitled to look for relief, both on the merits and for fees, to the governmental entity. Because the Court's Eleventh Amendment decisions required this case to be litigated as a personal-capacity action, the award of fees against the Commonwealth of Kentucky must be reversed.
It is so ordered.
"Pursuant to the provisions of 42 U. S. C. Sec. 1988, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, d/b/a Bureau of State Police is liable for the payment of reasonable attorney fees incurred in this action." Complaint ¶ 4(D).
According to respondents, "[p]aragraph 4(D) . . . states the sole basis for including the Commonwealth as a named party." Brief for Respondents 14.
We express no view as to the nature or degree of success necessary to make a plaintiff a prevailing party. See Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122 (1980).
In many cases, the complaint will not clearly specify whether officials are sued personally, in their official capacity, or both. "The course of proceedings" in such cases typically will indicate the nature of the liability sought to be imposed. Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 469 (1985).
As to legislative waiver of immunity, petitioners assert that the Commonwealth of Kentucky has not waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity. This contention is not disputed, and we therefore accept it for purposes of this case.