June 23, 2020

Arms of New York State may claim 11th Amendment immunity from lawsuits in federal court

The Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States provides that "[t]he 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 or Subjects of any Foreign State." This amendment established the doctrine of "sovereign immunity" of States and was adopted in response to the United States Supreme Court's decision in Chisholm v. Georgia.*

Plaintiff-Appellant [Plaintiff] in this action had sued the State University of New York at Stony Brook [University] in United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York alleging the University had violated certain provisions of 42 U.S.C. §1983, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The federal District Court dismissed Plaintiff's complaint under color of  University having Eleventh Amendment immunity and Plaintiff appealed.**

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, held that the district court properly dismissed Plaintiff's  claims in consideration of the Eleventh Amendment, "which precludes suits against states unless the state expressly waives its immunity or Congress abrogates that immunity, neither of which occurred here." 

State institutions of higher education such as University, explained the Second Circuit, are arms of the State of New York for  Eleventh Amendment purposes and are therefore entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.***

The court noted that the question of whether Eleventh Amendment immunity constitutes a true issue of subject matter jurisdiction or is more appropriately viewed as an affirmative defense ”has not yet been decided by the Supreme Court or this Court." However the Circuit Court concluded that the issue need not be addressed within the ambit of Plaintiff's appeal because the answer would not affect its decision to affirm the District Court's ruling. 

A summary of common types of "immunity and qualified privilege" that may be claimed by a public employer and its officers and employees involved in litigation where the performance of official duties is a consideration is posted on the Internet at:

* In Crisholm, a case decided in 1783, the United States Supreme Court, in a 4–1 decision, held that the State of Georgia did not possess sovereign immunity and was subject to suit by individual plaintiffs in federal court. [For additional information see Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute's  article discussing the Eleventh Amendment posted on the Internet at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution-conan/amendment-11/state-sovereign-immunity]

** Plaintiff also appealed the denial of his motions for recusal of certain judges and the disqualification of opposing counsel. 

*** Plaintiff contended that the Eleventh Amendment cannot bar the prospective relief he seeks — the termination of the University’s federal funding. The Circuit Court noted that the exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity for prospective relief applies only when a state official is sued, which Plaintiff had not done.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
https://www.leagle.com/decision/infco20200609073



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