Montclair State Immune From Ex-Employee's Medical Leave Suit

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By Patrick Dorrian

Montclair State University is immune from a former employee’s claims that she was unlawfully denied reinstatement to her old job when she returned from medical leave for breast cancer treatment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled ( Maliandi v. Montclair State Univ. , 2016 BL 431000, 3d Cir., No. 14-3812, 12/27/16 ).

The ruling is important because it answers a question that has bedeviled federal trial court judges in the circuit: whether Montclair State is an arm of the state of New Jersey for purposes of 11th Amendment immunity. The U.S. Supreme Court has read the 11th Amendment to generally bar federal lawsuits against a state by its own citizens as well as those from other states, and that reading extends to entities that are considered to be arms of the state.

The three-factor test used by the Third Circuit to determine whether a state-affiliated entity is an arm of the state dictates that Paula Maliandi can’t maintain her claims under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act against Montclair State, Judge Cheryl Ann Krause said in the Dec. 27 decision.

Two of Three Factors Favor Immunity

The “funding factor”—whether the state treasury is legally liable for any adverse judgments against the entity—tilts against recognizing Montclair State as an arm of New Jersey, Krause said. Among other things, apart from “minimal constraints,” the university is free to spend its state-appropriated money “as it sees fit,” she wrote.

But the “status under state law” factor favors according the school arm-of-the-state status, the Third Circuit found. It noted that under New Jersey law, Montclair State can’t sue or be sued in its own name, generally is subject to state administrative procedure and civil service laws, is immune from state taxes and can exercise the power of eminent domain.

The “autonomy” factor likewise tilts in favor of finding the university is immune from Maliandi’s FMLA lawsuit, Krause added. While some characteristics of the school may indicate that it operates free from state control, other considerations show that New Jersey maintains significant control over Montclair State, she said.

New Jersey law confers significant authority to the state governor over “the affairs of New Jersey state colleges,” the Third Circuit found, with all members of the board of trustees being appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate for six-year terms. Moreover, the governor is designated as the public “employer” of all college workers in the state, giving him “the sole power to collectively bargain on their behalf,” the court said.

In addition, a member of the governor’s cabinet—the state secretary of higher education—has the power to issue master plans for higher education in the state, license and accredit the academic institutions, impose rules of ethics for them, review budget requests and exercise other authority over state colleges, the court said.

Krause noted that other federal appeals courts have “almost uniformly” held that state-affiliated universities are arms of the states in which they’re located. However, questions of immunity require an individualized inquiry in all instances, she cautioned.

Judges Thomas L. Ambro and Anne E. Thompson joined the opinion.

Krakower DiChiara represented Maliandi. The New Jersey attorney general’s office represented Montclair State.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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