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Monday, September 21, 2015

State’s removing a private lawsuit from State court to Federal court waives a State’s 11th Amendment immunity but may not affect its general sovereign immunity


State’s removing a private lawsuit from State court to Federal court waives a State’s 11thAmendment immunity but may not affect its general sovereign immunity
Beaulieu v State of Vermont, US Circuit Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, Docket #13-4198-cv

704 current and former employees of the State of Vermont [Plaintiffs], brought an action in State court contending that because their weekly pay is or was reduced for partial-day absences in excess of their accrued leave, they are or were not paid on a “salary basis” under the Fair Labor Standards Act [FLSA] and are thus entitled to overtime pay at one and one-half times their regular rate.

Vermont  removed the action from Vermont   state court to the United States District Court, District of Vermont.

Vermont then moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s action based on its claim that it was immune from private lawsuit. The District Court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit “by reason of Vermont’s sovereign immunity* from private lawsuits.” Plaintiffs appealed.

The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling, explaining that although Vermont’s removal of Plaintiffs’ private lawsuit from Vermont state court to the United States District Court resulted in a waiver its Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in federal court, it had not waived its general sovereign immunity from private lawsuits within the meaning of Vermont State Law.

Plaintiffs had argue that a statutory provision, Vermont Statutes Title 21, §384(b)(7) constituted an express waiver of the Vermont’s immunity from private actions brought under the FLSA. The Circuit Court disagreed, noting that although Title 21 provides that “[A]n employer shall not pay an employee less than one and one-half times the regular wage rate for any work done by the employee in excess of 40 hours during a workweek,” the statute further provides that “this subsection shall not apply to: (7) State employees who are covered by the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act.”

In the words of the Circuit Court, “Plaintiff's argument misunderstands the difference between the applicability of a federal statute to a state enacting lawful obligations upon the state, and the state's amenability to a private entity's suit to enforce such an obligation. There is no doubt that the FLSA applies to Vermont and creates a legal obligation on Vermont to pay its employees in accordance with the statute's terms. Nonetheless, Vermont's sovereign immunity—unless waived or forfeited—bars suit by a private entity seeking to enforce the FLSA's terms.”

Accordingly, said the court, “[t]he fact that Vermont state employees are covered by the FLSA does not mean that those employees are entitled to sue Vermont under the FLSA's private right of action,” concluding that the District Court correctly dismissed Plaintiffs private lawsuit on the basis of Vermont's general sovereign immunity, which Vermont had not waived. 

* The Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity holds that the state cannot commit a legal wrong and thus is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution unless it has unequivocally waived such immunity.
 

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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