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Friday, October 21, 2011

Qualified immunity of public officials in litigation


Qualified immunity of public officials in litigation
Sonnleitner v York, et al, 304 F.3d 704

Sometimes public officials are named as respondents in a lawsuit. The Sonnleitner case considers a qualified immunity defense available to such officials in connection with their being sued in either an official capacity, or in a personal capacity, or both.

Harold Sonnleitner served as a supervising nurse at the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, a state-run psychiatric facility in Wisconsin. Sonnleitner was charged with a number of work rule infractions. A predisciplinary hearing was held. Shortly thereafter Sonnleitner was demoted to a non-supervisory position.

Sonnleitner appealed to the Wisconsin Personnel Commission. The Commission determined that there was only evidence to support one work rule violation and that a five-day suspension without pay was the appropriate discipline.

The Institute implemented the five-day suspension without pay but did not reinstate Sonnleitner to his former supervisory position. Sonnleitner commenced an action in State Court in Wisconsin (1) to enforce the Commission's ruling and (2) for damages pursuant to 42 USC 1983, alleging the violation of his procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The State had the lawsuit transferred to federal court.

When the federal district court granted the State's motion for summary judgment, Sonnleitner appealed.

One of the issues addressed by the Circuit Court of Appeals was the defense of "qualified immunity" raised by the individually named defendants, Stanley York and the other administrators, with respect to their being sued in their "personal capacity."

The court said that there were two tests that had to be met to determine whether or not the individual was entitled to claim qualified immunity with respect to being sued in a personal capacity.

The first test: did the official violate the individual's right to administrative due process.

The second test: did the plaintiff individual clearly establish his or her right to due process at the time of the alleged violation.

As Sonnleitner could not satisfy his burden of establishing the existence of any clearly established constitutional right to due process -- Sonnleitner conceded that he had not satisfied the procedural requirement to maintain his action in State Court -- the Circuit Court concluded that the individually named State defendants were entitled to qualified immunity with respect to their being sued in a personal capacity.

A second immunity issue presented for review by the Circuit Court: Could Sonnleitner maintain his lawsuit against the individually named defendants in their official capacity in order to obtain a federal court order to compel his reinstatement to his former supervisory position?

The court said that the Eleventh Amendment provides that:

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens of any Foreign State.

This means, said the Circuit Court, the Eleventh Amendment generally bars federal courts from taking jurisdiction over lawsuits against state officials acting in their official capacities when the state is the real party at interest.

The decision notes that there are three specific exceptions to a state's Eleventh Amendment immunity to lawsuits in federal court:

1. When Congress has abrogated the state's immunity from suit through an unequivocal expression of its intent to do so through a valid exercise of its legislative power;

2. When a state "has properly waived its immunity and consented to suit in federal court"; and

3. When the plaintiff "seek[s] prospective equitable relief for ongoing violations of federal law."

Sonnleitner's complaint, said the court, asserts that the defendants, in their official capacity, are "depriving him of his right to return to a position as supervisor."

Concluding that Sonnleitner failed to respond to the State's arguments concerning the first two exceptions to state immunity, the court said it had no basis to conclude that either Congress has abrogated Wisconsin's Eleventh Amendment immunity or that Wisconsin has authorized this lawsuit through an act of waiver or consent.*

Turning to the third exception to a state's Eleventh Amendment immunity, the court said that Sonnleitner's complaint and reply brief arguably made allegations that are at least consistent with meeting this test. However, the Circuit Court decided that the complaint did not allege an ongoing violation of federal law or sought any relief properly characterized as prospective.

In summary, the court concluded that Sonnleitner's Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process might have been violated when he was demoted to a staff level nursing position.

The Circuit Court said that the resolution of this question ultimately hinges on material facts that are not in the record. However, it ruled that a remand for a trial on the merits was unnecessary in this instance.

Why not remand the case back to the district court for a trial? Because, said the court, the individual defendants being sued in their official capacity are entitled to qualified immunity since Sonnleitner did not satisfy his burden of demonstrating the existence of a clearly established constitutional right to a pre-demotion hearing with respect to all of the relevant charges.

Further, the court ruled that Sonnleitner's official capacity claims also failed because he did not alleged any ongoing violation of federal law.

The decision also reports that Institute officials rejected Sonnleitner's request to become a Unit Director, "reasoning that his pre-demotion position of Nurse Manager no longer existed and that it had no obligation to place him in another position." It said that it would be "full compliance with the Commission order by permitting Sonnleitner to remain in his current position at the Institute, where he was actually paid more money than in his former job." Sonnleitner had shielded himself from the adverse economic effect of his demotion by requesting a transfer to the night shift, where he earned a pay premium.

* The court said it "flatly" refused to undertake its own examination of Wisconsin and federal law to see if such a basis exists as it is not the court's responsibility to research and construct the parties' arguments.


Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

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A Reasonable Penalty Under The Circumstances at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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