quick facts

The Massachusetts Civil Rights Act: A Baby Section 1983

Massachusetts is one of eight states to enact a statute creating a private right of action for violations of its Declaration of Rights. 1 The Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (“MCRA”) allows a plaintiff to bring claims for injunctive relief, damages, and attorney’s fees against a government employee if the plaintiff can show that “(1) his exercise or enjoyment of rights secured by the Constitution or laws of either the United States or of the Commonwealth (2) has been interfered with, or attempted to be interfered with, and (3) that the interference or attempted interference was by ‘threats, intimidation or coercion.’” 2 The “threats, intimidation, or coercion” requirement means that not every state constitutional violation can be remedied by the MTCA. 3 Despite this core limitation, the MCRA is in many ways coextensive with Section 1983. Like Section 1983, the MCRA has not been interpreted to waive sovereign immunity for the State or its agencies. 4 Courts also apply the same qualified immunity analysis to claims under the MCRA as they apply to Section 1983 claims. 5 However, unlike Section 1983, the MCRA has not been interpreted to allow plaintiffs to sue a municipality. 6

The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act

In addition to suing for state constitutional claims, plaintiffs harmed by the government in Massachusetts can sue under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”). 7 While shielding public employees from personal liability for negligent conduct committed within the scope of employment, the MTCA waives sovereign immunity to allow plaintiffs to sue government employers for an employee’s negligent conduct. 8 The statute states that public employers are liable for the negligent acts of their employees “in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.” 9

The MTCA contains several exceptions, including for discretionary acts, a public employee’s execution of a statute or regulation when the employee acts with due care, negligent inspection of property, and intentional torts. 10 Despite the MTCA’s exception for intentional torts, public employees can be held liable in their individual capacity for their intentional torts. 11