Felder (Plaintiff) filed an action in Wisconsin state court against Casey (Defendant) as well as other police officers and the city of Milwaukee alleging a violation of federal civil rights law. The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the suit was barred because Plaintiff did not comply with a state notice of claim requirement.
While states may prescribe rules and procedures governing litigation in their courts, they may not place conditions on the vindication of a federal right.
Plaintiff alleged that he was beaten by Milwaukee police officers during an arrest. He filed suit in state court against the officers and city under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a violation of his civil rights. Defendants moved to dismiss the claim for failure by Plaintiff to comply with Wisconsin’s Notice of Claim statute. The trial court denied the motion, the state appellate court affirmed, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed, finding that the state was permitted to prescribe procedures governing suits in its courts even for federal claims.
May a state create a procedural rule that limits the ability of a claimant to vindicate a federal right?
(Brennan, J.) No. While states may prescribe rules and procedures governing litigation in their courts, they may not place conditions on the vindication of a federal right. States may place limitations on its citizens’ ability to obtain relief against the state, but may not limit relief under a federally created right. Under the Supremacy Clause, the federal law preempts the Wisconsin notice requirement. Reversed and remanded.
A state has the ability to govern its courts and the procedures used, as well as the ability to limit suits against the state or municipalities through such procedures, but cannot impinge upon a federal right through those procedures. Notice of claim statutes are frequently used as a mechanism for limiting actions against state and municipal actors by requiring notice within a short time frame and giving the respondents the opportunity to settle the case before it reaches a court.