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Sovereign Immunity is a Topic Best Left to Attorneys.

Teresa Hall Marsh v. Virginia Department of Transportation, No. 6:14-cv-00006 (W.D. Va. June 16, 2014)(Moon, J.)

Plaintiff Teresa Hall Marsh worked for the Virginia Department of Transportation. Ms. Marsh complained of mold in the Lynchburg facility where she worked and complained about the effects of mold on her health. VDOT terminated Ms. Marsh’s employment and Ms. Marsh subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging that VDOT violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). VDOT filed a motion to dismiss Ms. Marsh’s claims, arguing that it is immune from claims filed under Title I of the ADA.

Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that effectively renders a state—and political subdivisions and arms of the state—immune from certain lawsuits. The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits suits for money damages in federal court against the states. A state may waive its sovereign immunity, or Congress may authorize certain lawsuits under the abrogation doctrine. For example, Congress explicitly extended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination by states, thereby allowing suits against states by their citizens for discrimination on the basis of race, religion, etc.

Title I of the ADA prohibits private employers, State and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified job applicants or employees in employment. Though the law allows for plaintiffs to sue states, in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett (2001), the Supreme Court of the United States held that Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act is unconstitutional in that it violates the Eleventh Amendment. In Garrett, the Supreme Court found that, with regard to the ADA, Congress could not use its power under the Fourteenth Amendment to enforce the Equal Protection Clause by abrogating a state’s immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Put simply, the Court decided that Eleventh Amendment immunity is applicable to suits under Title I of the ADA, effectively prohibiting an award of money damages against a state if the state discriminates against a disabled employee.

In January of 2014, the Fourth Circuit held in McRay v. Maryland DOT that sovereign immunity prohibited an ADA and ADEA suit in its entirety—not only the plaintiff’s claims for monetary relief. Relying on McRay, in this case the court explicitly stated that the Eleventh Amendment clearly applies to a suit seeking an injunction, thus prohibiting Ms. Marsh’s ADA claim in its entirety.

Ms. Marsh filed a Motion to Amend, though, seeking leave for her to add a claim under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The “Rehab Act” prohibits the same discriminatory actions prohibited by the ADA, but the Rehab Act differs from the ADA in that sovereign immunity does not act as a jurisdictional bar for plaintiffs.

Sovereign immunity is a difficult legal doctrine. Although this case does provide an introduction to the doctrine (and reiterates that even injunctions are not available under an ADA claim against a state), what the average employee should take away is this: hire an attorney. Ms. Marsh would have saved herself significant trouble if she had pursued her claim under the Rehab Act initially, rather than the ADA.

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