Legal question on lawsuits

Sometimes when people sue a state instead of Smith vs. State of NC, I see a lawsuit that says Smith vs. Jones where Jones is someone who works for the state.

Any reason they would name a person in the suit rather than just suing the state?


When you sue the government for what the government did / did not do to [allegedly] wrong you, that action / inaction has to arise from some department / agency / unit / office / etc., from within the government. So the lawsuit is directed at the head of said department / agency / unit / office / etc., from within the government.

That’s right. Depending on the issues involved, the Attorney General might be the defendant, or the Secretary of Defense, or the Commissioner of Internal Revenue (it used to be that the Commissioner’s individual name would be used in the case caption, but since tax cases can drag on and Commissioners come and go, all such cases now refer to him or her just by title):

There are some civil procedural problems with suing the President himself, but it does happen:

There is a doctrine called “sovereign immunity,” which says that the government cannot be sued unless it allows itself to be. Using the federal government as an example, in some areas Congress has allowed the government to be sued. Examples include commercial contracts and negligent torts (e.g., getting run over by a federal prison bus). In cases arising from those areas of law, the plaintiff names “the United States” as the defendant.

In other areas of law, sovereign immunity remains a formal bar, and so as a partial legal fiction, the plaintiff sues the presiding federal official, often on the basis that the official is seeking to enforce a law that the plaintiff argues is invalid. Hence the sort of lawsuit captions that the OP has seen.

The catch is that this legal fiction generally only extends to suits for some sort of injunction – an order requiring the official to take some action or refrain from taking some action. Sovereign immunity still partially applies, in that the plaintiff cannot receive money damages.

Or you could move to Canada, where you can bring lawsuits against the Queen : very classy styles of cause, like: “A. Doper v Her Majesty the Queen in right of Canada.”

There is also a class of customs cases where, for some godforsaken reason, the government is styled as having sued the item in dispute. This produces cases like “United States v. 5,272 Cans of Tomato Pulp.”

Imagine all the cases of musicians suing over royalty disputes: Queen v. Queen, Carole King v. Queen, Prince v. Queen, T. Rex v. E. Regina, etc.

Asset forfeitures are the same. When I was a summer law clerk for the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, I wrote a memo on those cases, which rejoiced in such names as United States v. One 1991 Ford Fairmount, United States v. $5673.03 in U.S. Currency and United States v. Eighteen Cotton Candy Machines, Model No. 873A.

Imagine, an entire country ganging up on a car!

Its the old common law concept that you could not sue the crown sans the crowns permission. So the legal fiction was invented to get around that. Most countries have abolished or greatly eased restrictions. Why the US holds onto that I’ll never know.

It’s not just a legal fiction. There is often a real distinction involved. In many cases where you’re suing the government, you’re making the claim that some person who works for the government didn’t do their job correctly.

Let’s say that John Smith, a TSA agent searching your luggage at the airport, spills a cup of coffee on your laptop and shorts it out. You file a lawsuit.

You’re not going to argue that the Transportation Security Administration or the United States government spilled that coffee. You want to make the opposite point and argue that the TSA and the government prohibit its employees from damaging people’s property.

The person you’re suing is John Smith, who you will be arguing damaged your property and did so in a manner that violated TSA policy.

Because it’s not a legal fiction here. The states cannot be sued for money damages in federal courts. Their officials may be sued for injunctive relief from violations of federal law, though.

Thats different. Thats an action in Tort. The Tort is committed against you by John Smith and you do sue him. Now because he probably has about $50 in the bank, he is not really worth suing, so you sue the TSA, claiming they are vicariously liable because he was working for and under their direction at the time, they are responsible for damages caused. This is an example of an action for negligence as **Tom Tildrum **stated.

Most cases against the sovereign occur when the Plaintiff is claiming that a Government official acted outside of the scope of his powers, failed to act when he should have, acted in an unreasonable manner, failed to follow procedures, or act was barred by some superior law. In that case in most countries, the action is brought against the officer who is doing the unlawful act and his official title is used.

If for example, in Nosuchland, **AK84 **is being deported by the Secretary of the Interior pursuant to his powers under the Fuck Foreigners Act 2015, then the a challenge to the deportation order (if competant) will be titled,

AK84 v Secretary Interior. In the US it will be

AK84 v <named official>