State Not Immune From Reinstatement Bid By Fired College Employee, 11th Cir. Rules

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By Kevin McGowan

Oct. 10 — A former Alabama state college employee who alleges his termination violated the First Amendment may seek reinstatement without running afoul of state sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled Oct. 8.

On remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, the appeals panel said although the 11th Amendment precludes damages against the state, former Central Alabama Community College employee Edward Lane may seek equitable relief for the alleged First Amendment violation against the current college president in her official capacity.

The 11th Amendment generally “bars civil actions against state officials in their official capacity ‘when the state is the real, substantial party in interest,' ” the court said.

On remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, the appeals panel said although the 11th Amendment precludes damages against the state, former Central Alabama Community College employee Edward Lane may seek equitable relief for the alleged First Amendment violation against the current college president in her official capacity.

But under Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), the court said, “official-capacity suits against state officials are permissible” under the 11th Amendment “when the plaintiff seeks ‘prospective equitable relief to end continuing violations of federal law.' ”

“We have determined previously that requests for reinstatement constitute prospective injunctive relief that fall within the scope of the Ex parte Young exception and, thus, are not barred by the Eleventh Amendment,” the court said. “And given our precedents, nothing demonstrates to us that Lane's requested reinstatement is considerably different, implicating Alabama's sovereignty interests and funds so significantly that the Ex parte Young exception would be inapplicable.”

Immunity Issue Was Remanded

The Eleventh Circuit in 2013 had affirmed dismissal of Lane's claim that the college violated the First Amendment by firing him after he testified under subpoena in the federal criminal trial of a state legislator (523 F. App'x 709, 37 IER Cases 870 (11th Cir. 2013)). The legislator was ultimately convicted of stealing public funds for a no-show job at the college.

The Supreme Court on review ruled Lane raised a triable First Amendment retaliation claim but the former college president was entitled to qualified immunity because the constitutional right wasn't clearly established when he fired Lane in 2009 (134 S. Ct. 2369, 38 IER Cases 585 (2014)).

The justices remanded the issue of whether the state's sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment would bar Lane from seeking relief against the current college president in her official capacity under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1983).

State Salary Not Trigger

The appeals court held the 11th Amendment doesn't bar Lane from seeking the equitable remedy of reinstatement to his community college job.

That Lane's reinstatement would require Alabama to pay his salary doesn't trigger the 11th Amendment's protection for the state, the court said.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that compliance with the terms of prospective injunctive relief will often necessitate the expenditure of state funds,” the court said, citing Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651 (1974). “And ‘[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.' ”

Judges J.L. Edmondson, Peter T. Fay and Beverly B. Martin joined in the per curiam opinion.

John D. Saxon in Birmingham, Ala., Goldstein & Russell, Cory Watson Crowder & DeGaris and the National Education Association represented Lane. Hand Arendall LLC represented the state college and its president.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com.

Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Lane_v_Cent_Ala_Cmty_Coll_No_1216192_NonArgument_Calendar_2014_BL.