Eleventh Circuit Reverses Denial of Motion to Dismiss Wrongful Termination Claims on Grounds of Eleventh Amendment Immunity

In Pellitteri v. Prine, No. 13-14297 (Jan. 13, 2015), the Eleventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s denial of Defendant Chris Prine’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff Felicia Pellitteri’s wrongful termination claims on grounds of Eleventh Amendment immunity.

Plaintiff is a former deputy sheriff in Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office who injured her knee during the course of her duties, and was eventually fired after being denied placement on temporary light duty.  Plaintiff subsequently filed a complaint in federal district court against Lowndes County, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, and Sheriff Prine, alleging that the defendants violated her rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111, 12112.  Defendant Prine then filed a motion to dismiss in which he argued that Plaintiff’s § 1983 and ADA claims against him in his official capacity were barred by the Eleventh Amendment.  The District Court denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss and he appealed.

On appeal, Defendant argued that the District Court erred when it denied him immunity under the Eleventh Amendment of the United States Constitution, which bars suits brought in federal court when the State itself is sued and when an “arm of the State” is sued.  He argued that because his law enforcement powers all derive from the State of Georgia, and the State has exclusive authority and control over the duties and affairs of his office, he acts as an “arm of the State” when exercising his power to hire and fire the deputies that enforce the laws of Georgia on his behalf.

The Eleventh Circuit agreed with Defendant’s “arm of the State” argument after weighing the four factors set forth in Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 2003).  First, the Court determined how state law defines the entity and found that because sheriffs in Georgia derive their powers and duties from the State, including the authority to employ personnel, the first Manders factor weighed in favor of immunity.  Second, the Court evaluated the degree of control the State maintains over the entity and found that because (1) the threshold requirements for serving as a peace officer in Georgia significantly limit a sheriff’s discretion when hiring potential deputies, (2) the Georgia legislature enacted laws creating a Peace Officer Standards and Training Council to discipline peace officers, and (3) Georgia’s governor has broad investigation and suspension powers to discipline a sheriff for misconduct, the second Manders factor weighed in favor of immunity. Third, the Court analyzed where the entity derives its funds and found that because Lowndes County funds the sheriff’s department according to State law requirements, the Court could not conclude whether the third Manders factor weighed in favor of immunity.  Finally, the Court considered the liability and payment of adverse judgments and found that because any adverse judgment against Sheriff Prine would be paid out of the budget of the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, which is comprised of both County and State funds, the fourth Manders factor weighed in favor of denying immunity.

The Eleventh Circuit concluded that because the first three Manders factors weighed in favor of immunity, on balance, Defendant “enjoys Eleventh Amendment immunity against Plaintiff’s wrongful termination claims brought against him in his official capacity.”

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