Eleventh Amendment Sovereign Immunity Rejected in § 1983 Claim for Equitable Relief

In Lane v. Central Alabama Community College, No. 12-16192 (Oct. 8, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit held that Lane’s official-capacity claim for equitable relief against the president of Central Alabama Community College (CACC) was not barred by the Eleventh Amendment.

Edward Lane filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil action against Steve Franks individually and in his capacity as president of CACC alleging retaliation in violation of the First Amendment. When the Eleventh Circuit originally heard the case on appeal in 2013, they affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Franks on the grounds that under Eleventh Circuit law, Lane’s subpoenaed testimony at a federal criminal trials about acts he performed as part of his official duties as a CACC employee was not protected by the First Amendment given that it was not speech made primarily in his role as a citizen. In so ruling, the court failed to reach the question of whether Franks was entitled to sovereign immunity from Lane’s claim. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, and reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, holding that Lane’s subpoenaed testimony was in fact protected by the First Amendment. It dismissed all claims against Franks in his individual capacity, but remanded the case for further proceedings on the sovereign immunity issue regarding Lane’s claim against Franks in his official capacity seeking equitable relief in the form of reinstatement of his employment.

On remand, the district court determined that Lane’s official-capacity claim was barred by the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution, which reads, “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 or Subjects of any Foreign State.” The Eleventh Circuit, reviewing the case de novo, rejected the district court’s determination, instead holding that the suit fell under the exception to the Eleventh Amendment established in Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), which permits official-capacity suits where the plaintiff seeks “prospective equitable relief to end continuing violations of federal law.” Id. at *4 (quoting Summit Medical Associates v. Pryor, 180 F.3d 1326, 1336 (11th Cir. 1999)(emphasis in original)).

In its analysis, the court relied on its prior decisions determining that requests for reinstatement constitute prospective injunctive relief within the definition in Ex parte Young. Id. at *5 (citing Cross v. Ala. State Dep’t of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, 49 F.3d 1490, 1503 (11th Cir. 1995); Lassiter v. Ala. A & M Univ., Bd. Of Trs., 3 F.3d 1482, 1485 (11th Cir. 1993), vacated on other grounds, 28 F.3d 1146 (11th Cir. 1994)). The court distinguished the case from Idaho v. Coeur d’Alene Tribe, 521 U.S. 261 (1997), in which the Supreme Court held that Idaho was entitled to Eleventh Amendment protection . Unlike in Idaho, the special sovereign interest in land was lacking, and reinstatement in this case was not the “functional equivalent” of a form of relief otherwise barred by the Eleventh Amendment.

Finally, the court noted that just because the reinstatement would require the state to pay Lane’s salary did not trigger Eleventh Amendment protection. “[S]uch an ancillary effect on the state treasury is a permissible and often an inevitable consequence of the principle announced in Ex parte Young.” Id. at *6 (citing Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 668 (1974)). Given Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court precedents, the court “conclude[d] that the district court erred in dismissing Lane’s official-capacity claim against Franks as barred by the Eleventh Amendment.” Id.

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