July 20, 2020

Eleventh Amendment immunity "extends to state agencies and to state officers who act on behalf of the state"


The complaint [Plaintiff] sued the New York State Department of Labor [NYSDOL]  in federal district court alleging that an employee of NYSDOL unlawfully adjusted her unemployment benefits claim resulting in her having to repay the agency more than $9,000.

Noting that Plaintiff's complaint did not specify a cause of action or any statute pursuant to which she was suing, the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, observed that the federal district court had, sua sponte,* dismissed Plaintiff's complaint as frivolous because NYSDOL was immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. In addition, the district court had denied Plaintiff's motion for leave to amend her complaint on the ground that it would be futile as NYSDOL was immune from lawsuit in federal courts.


Noting the Plaintiff had forfeited any challenge to the district court's rulings that NYSDOL was immune from suit and that amending her complaint would be futile by failing to address these determinations in her brief, the Circuit Court opined that were it to reach the merits of the district court's decision it would conclude that the district court did not err as district courts have the inherent power to sua sponte dismiss a complaint as frivolous, "even where, as here, the plaintiff has paid the filing fee."


Citing its decision in Livingston v. Adirondack Beverage Co., 141 F.3d 434, the Circuit Court of Appeals said that "A complaint is frivolous when "(1) the factual contentions are clearly baseless . . . ; or (2) the claim is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory." One example of a claim "based on an indisputably meritless legal theory" offered by the Circuit Court was an action brought against a "defendant [that is] immune from suit."

The Circuit Court said that the district court correctly held that NYSDOL is immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment, which precludes suits against states and state agencies unless the state expressly waives its immunity or Congress abrogates that immunity and the Eleventh Amendment immunity "extends to state agencies and to state officers who act on behalf of the state."

As Congress has not abrogated New York's immunity against suit in this circumstance nor has New York waived its immunity from suit, the Circuit Court concluded that "the district court did not err in sua sponte dismissing [Plaintiff's] complaint as frivolous" as the NYSDOL is immune from suit brought in federal courts.

* Sua sponte [or suo motu] is an action taken by a court without formal prompting or motion by a party in the action.

The decision is posted on the Internet at: 

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