September 7, 2010

Eleventh Amendment immunity lost should a state adopt the Fair Labor Standards Act as state law

Eleventh Amendment immunity lost should a state adopt the Fair Labor Standards Act as state law
Mueller v Thompson, CA7, 133 F.3d 1063

In Seminole Tribe v Florida, 517 US 44, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress did not have the power to void a state’s Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in the federal courts by enacting legislation pursuant to the Commerce Clause.

In its ruling, the 7th Circuit pointed out that the Supreme Court said states were immune from FLSA under the Tenth Amendment [National League of Cities v Usery, 427 US 909] only to overrule that decision in Garcia v San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority [469 US 528]. However, in Garcia the Supreme Court said the FLSA applied to the states with respect to their performing “non-traditional” governmental functions, here a public transportation system.

If a state adopts the FLSA as state law and allows state employees to sue it for alleged violations of the state’s law, has it lost its Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit by its employees brought in the federal courts for alleged violations of the federal FLSA? This was the question presented to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit, by the Mueller case.

The Court said that there is no waiver of a state’s Eleventh Amendment immunity “unless the state has made its intention to waive its rights under the amendment clear.”

In 1971 Wisconsin copied the federal FLSA and made it part of its state law. In 1974 Congress amended the FLSA, making it applicable to the states and their political subdivisions.

On this legislative history, said the Court, there is “little reason” to concluded that Wisconsin waived its immunity by adopting a state FLSA applicable to public employees as Congress had not yet authorized suing states in federal court for alleged violations of the FLSA.

New York State, in contrast, adopted overtime provisions for state workers in an effort to comply with the overtime mandates of the FLSA after Congress made the FLSA applicable to the states. Accordingly, it could be argued that New York State, as an employer, “deliberately” waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit by state workers for alleged violations of the FLSA in federal court.

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