Oral argument: Dec. 1, 2010
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (June 2, 2009)
FEDERALISM, SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY, EX PARTE YOUNG, DISABILITY RIGHTS
The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy ("VOPA"), an independent state agency, advocates for individuals with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities. In accordance with federal funding requirements, Virginia law authorizes VOPA to access an individual's records if VOPA believes an individual was abused. During an investigation, a state facility denied VOPA access to the records of three individuals, and VOPA sued three state officials alleging that they violated federal law. The Eleventh Amendment provides that states cannot be sued in federal court by residents of one of the United States or of a foreign state. However, the Supreme Court, in Ex parte Young, recognized an exception to the Eleventh Amendment allowing a party to sue state officials for injunctive or declaratory relief to correct an ongoing violation of federal law. The Fourth Circuit held that, because the plaintiff in this suit was a state-created agency rather than a private individual, the suit could not proceed under the Ex parte Young exception and that allowing it to proceed in federal court would be a violation of Virginia’s sovereign immunity. This decision may affect the ability of independent agencies to protect vulnerable individuals from neglect and has the potential to increase legal conflict between state agencies.