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Employment Lawsuits against Public Employers

The Supreme Court’s decision this past week in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland (Case No. 10-1016) prompts consideration of some of the quirks in the law governing lawsuits by public employees against their state, county and municipal employers. (Coleman held that state employees may not sue for denial of FMLA leave for their own serious health conditions.) What happens when an employee tries to sue city hall or Sacramento?

State Sovereign Immunity

Unless they consent, States are not subject to suit for damages under federal law because of the sovereign immunity conferred by the 11th Amendment. See Kimel v. Florida Bd. of Regents, 528 U.S. 62 (2000). That bar extends to lawsuits in both federal and state court. Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999).

Through its authority to enforce the 14th Amendment by appropriate legislation, Congress may abrogate the States’ immunity. To do so, Congress must make its intent to abrogate unmistakably clear in the statutory language, and must tailor the legislation to remedy conduct that violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive provisions. Application of those principles to some major federal employment laws gives the following results:

  • Title VII — the chief anti-discrimination law abrogates sovereign immunity. State employees may sue for discrimination under Title VII.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act abrogates sovereign immunity.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act does not purport to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, and does not abrogate sovereign immunity. The Equal Pay Act (which is part of the FLSA) probably abrogates the immunity, but the Supreme Court has not finally determined the issue.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act does not abrogate sovereign immunity for suits by state employees against their employer.Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 US 356 (2001).

The immunity extends to the State itself and to arms of the state. For example, because of the extensive control that the State exercises over school districts in California, they enjoy sovereign immunity. Belanger v. Madera Unified School Dist., 963 F.2d 248 (9th Cir. 1992.).

The immunity does not bar suits against state officials for prospective equitable relief to ensure that federal law is carried out. (Thus, federal agencies may still sue state officials to enforce compliance with the FMLA after the Coleman ruling.) It also does not bar actions directly against state officials under 42 U.S.C. section 1983 for invading federal rights under color of state law. Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21 (1991). Section 1983 does not abrogate sovereign immunity. Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332 (1979).

Municipalities as persons under Section 1983

Counties, municipalities and other local government entities do not have sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment. Hence, they are generally subject to suit for violation of federal law in both federal and state court, including suits by their employees.

Although they are subject to suit under section 1983, the statute has been interpreted to limit their liability as entities to cases where the deprivation of a federal right is the result of a policy, custom or practice of the local government entity. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 US 658 (1978).