Parratt v. Taylor: Unauthorized Deprivations and the Content of an Adequate Remedy


In 1981, in Parratt v.Taylor, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a person who has been wrongfully deprived of property by a state official cannot bring a federal constitutional claim based on the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment if state law provides an adequate remedy. While the Supreme Court subsequently held that negligent state conduct that invades a fourteenth amendment interest can never amount to a constitutional deprivation, Parratt still governs intentional and reckless state action. The Parratt decision was fueled both by the general perception that the federal court dockets are seriously overburdened with section 1983 actions and by then-Justice Rehnquist’s long-standing desire to clear the federal courts of meritless, or meritorious yet trivial, suits against state officials. Parratt’s intended – and actual – effect was to funnel a significant percentage of civil rights claims into state courts and administrative claims tribunals. These claims are then subject to state law remedies, immunities, defenses and procedures.

Prior to the Court’s decision in Parratt, it was generally understood that an individual deprived of a property or liberty interest by a state official had a federal action for damages under section 1983, based on the fourteenth amendment’s due process clause. The availability of state law remedies was irrelevant. After Parratt, however, no federal constitutional due process claim can be brought where the alleged deprivation was “random” and “unauthorized”‘ if an adequate state remedy is available “random” or “unauthorized” deprivation occurs when a defendant-state official acts contrary to, or outside of state-defined authority and discretion. Pre-Parratt doctrine, however, was left intact for cases where the deprivation occurred through the operation of “established state procedures.” These cases involve actions or procedures which the state or relevant state entity authorized. Since the state itself has contravened the plaintiff’s rights, the remedies provided by the state are viewed as irrelevant to the occurrence of an actionable constitutional deprivation.

Courts and commentators agree that Parratt has been an extremely difficult decision to decipher and apply. But more important than its imprecision is the ruling’s potential impact on the capacity of the fourteenth amendment’s due process clause to protect citizens from state officials’ reckless and intentional unauthorized abuses of state authority. After Parratt, it may be consistent with due process for citizens to be intentionally deprived of life, liberty or property by a state official’s intentional but unauthorized and unlawful state action and yet be denied a remedy.

From a civil rights perspective, the problem with Parratt is not that some injured plaintiffs are forced to litigate their claims in state court, since where the inquiry into adequate state remedies is applied as formulated in this Comment, those with meritorious claims will receive some compensation or relief. Limited to non-egregious deprivations, Parratt is defensible. The problem is that through an incorrect application of the inquiry into the adequacy of state remedies, some plaintiffs with meritorious claims will receive no redress at all. This scenario of “rights without remedies” occurs when a federal court has dismissed the plaintiff’s case, assuming that adequate remedies exist under state law, but the plaintiff subsequently goes uncompensated because state substantive or procedural law turns out to be more restrictive than its federal counterpart. Typically, the offending state provision is an immunity which grants the state official more protection than she would receive under federal law. Different rules governing the construction of pleadings, qualitatively different measures of damages, or the imposition of filing fees beyond the means of indigent plaintiffs may also prevent or limit redress for the plaintiff. “If these cases [where plaintiffs with meritorious claims receive no redress] are correct, then the scope of constitutional protection of life, liberty, and property could be very narrow.” This Comment argues that state court remedies that are marked by certain restrictive substantive or procedural rules cannot be considered adequate state remedies consistent with either the Court’s opinion in Parratt or the mandate of the fourteenth amendment.

In Parratt and subsequent relevant decisions, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the “adequacy inquiry” has both substantive/remedial and procedural components. Adequate state remedies can range from informal administrative claims processes to fully endowed tort litigation, and in some cases, include simple appellate review. With respect to procedure, these remedies must satisfy the minimum requirements of traditional procedural due process and provide that extra measure of procedural protection demanded of state systems when federal rights are to be adjudicated. With respect to substantive law, adequate state remedies must guarantee relief sufficient to make the plaintiff “whole” upon proof of a constitutional deprivation by a state actor of a protected entitlement to life, liberty, or property.

Under this formulation of adequacy, an inquiry into the facts of each case and the corresponding state law is mandated. General rules, however, may be formulated to deal appropriately with some clear cases. On the one hand, states may impose reasonable procedural requirements, such as a one-year statute of limitations or a notice-of-appeal requirement, and a plaintiff’s failure to comply with such requirements, barring relief at the state level, will not render an otherwise adequate remedy inadequate. Conversely, insurmountable obstacles to redress, such as absolute immunities or filing fees beyond the victim’s means, will preclude a determination that a state offers adequate postdeprivation process. In between these extremes, where the state system does offer some type of relief, but the relief is subject to a moderately restrictive procedural or substantive rule, such as a limitation on damages or a harsh antiplaintiff pleading rule, the relief should be considered adequate only where the offensive feature is not “inconsistent” with the underlying constitutional right to due process of law.

Section I of this Comment will first discuss the Parratt doctrine itself and its general treatment in the lower courts. It will also consider the post-Parratt Supreme Court cases that today shape the constitutional claim for an unauthorized deprivation without due process. Section II will begin with a close look at how the adequacy test has been applied in the “easy cases,” where clearly adequate relief was apparently available for the plaintiff under state law. It will also analyze the due process implications of these cases in the broader context of general constitutional and policy-oriented concerns. Section III will scrutinize the “hard cases,” where courts recognize that no postdeprivation remedy is available under state law, and ascertain whether the judiciary’s resolutions are consistent with Parratt and, especially, the mandate of the fourteenth amendment. Section IV will develop the concepts of “substantive” and “procedural” adequacy and respond to scholarly commentary and cases which have maintained that immunity-barred state remedies are in fact “adequate.” This Comment will conclude that Parratt imposes a sensible regime on section 1983 due process claims as long as state postdeprivation remedies adequately protect constitutional rights.

Suggested Reading