Whether the Eleventh Amendment’s notion of state sovereign immunity prevents a state-created agency from suing state officials in federal court to seek conformity with federal law.
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.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Eleventh Amendment categorically precludes an independent state agency from bringing an action in federal court against state officials for prospective injunctive relief to remedy a violation of federal law under the doctrine of Ex parte Young.
The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy ("VOPA") is an independent state agency that advocates for individuals with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities. See Virginia v. Reinhard, 568 F.3d 110, 113 (4th Cir. 2009). VOPA receives federal funding by fulfilling certain requirements established by the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000 ("DD") and the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act ("PAIMI"). See Id. at 114. In order to meet the requirements of PAIMI and DD, Virginia law authorizes VOPA to investigate complaints about abuse, neglect, and discrimination of mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals independent of Virginia's Office of the Attorney General. See Id. Additionally, in accordance with PAIMI and DD requirements, VOPA has the authority to access the records of a disabled individual if VOPA believes the individual was abused or neglected. See Id.
In order to investigate potential abuse and neglect, VOPA requested the records of three individuals who died or were injured in facilities maintained by Virginia's Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services ("MHMRSA"). See Reinhard, 568 F.3d at 114. VOPA was denied access to these individuals' records. See Id. Following this denial, VOPA sued three MHMRSA officials in their official capacities in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging that the refusal to access the records violated PAIMI and DD. See Id. VOPA sought declaratory relief and an injunction allowing VOPA access to the records. See Id. The state officials moved to dismiss the complaint arguing that they were protected by sovereign immunity. See Id.
In accordance with the principles of federalism and state sovereignty, 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. See Reinhard, 568 F.3d at 115. Sovereign immunity protects states' dignity and prevents interference by the federal government in state affairs. See Id.Under limited circumstances, Congress can abrogate state sovereign immunity, and a state may waive sovereign immunity if the state chooses to consent to a particular suit. See Id. at 116–17. Additionally, the Supreme Court, in Ex parte Young, created 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. See 209 U.S. 123 (1908). The district court determined that the officials in this case did not have sovereign immunity because the dispute fell into the Ex parte Young exception. See Reinhard, 568 F.3d at 114–15.
The state officials appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. See Reinhard, 568 F.3d at 114. The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court and determined that the state officials did have sovereign immunity. See Id. at 119–20. The Fourth Circuit determined that the Ex parte Young exception allows only private individuals to sue state officials in federal court, and does not permit an independent state agency to bring an action against state officials in a federal court. See Id. On June 21, 2010, the Supreme Court granted VOPA's petition for certiorari to determine whether an independent state agency may sue state officials in federal court for injunctive relief under Ex parte Young. See VOPA v. Stewart, 130 S. Ct. 3493 (2010).
The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy (“VOPA”) argues that the Ex parte Young exception to the Eleventh Amendment allows a state-created agency to sue state officials in federal court to obtain prospective relief. See Brief for Petitioner, Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy at 31. VOPA contends that, although the Eleventh Amendment preserves state sovereign immunity, it does not bar this suit, and that the use of the Ex parte Young exception is appropriate even when the plaintiff is a state-created agency. See Id.The Virginia state officials, however, argue that whether a state agency can sue state officials is an issue of first impression that requires a case-specific federalism analysis. See Brief for Respondents, James W. Stewart, III, et al. at 15. Under such an analysis, the state officials contend, VOPA’s claim should fail as it would violate Virginia’s state sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment and violate other dignitary rights. See Id. at 15.
The Ex parte Young Doctrine
VOPA acknowledges that the Eleventh Amendment reflects a broad vision of state sovereign immunity that is rooted in federalism concerns. See Brief for Petitioner at 32. However, VOPA contends that current dispute falls into the Ex parte Young exception to state sovereign immunity from suit in federal courts. See Id. at 34. The exception allows a federal court to hear a dispute against a state that involves a continuing violation of federal law where the plaintiff is seeking prospective relief. See Id.VOPA also adds that the Supreme Court has given federal courts authority to curb state violations of federal law that would otherwise contravene the Supremacy Clause. See Id. at 33. Accordingly, VOPA argues that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar this action for prospective relief to remedy an ongoing violation of federal law by state officials and that the use of the Ex parte Young exception here respects state sovereign immunity. See Id. at 34.
On the other hand, the state officials contend that the fact the plaintiff here is a state agency and not a private individual bars the application of the Ex parte Young doctrine. See Brief for Respondents at 15. They contend that the issue of whether a state agency can sue state officials under Ex parte Young is an issue of first impression. See Id. at 15. The state officials assert that the Ex parte Young doctrine allows an individual who is acting as an officer of the state to be sued for the enforcement of state laws that violate the federal Constitution. See Id. at 18. The officials argue that this is not the situation in this case and that the primary goal of the suit is to contest state policy that complies with federal law and the Constitution in federal court. See Id. at 19. Accordingly, they contend that any reasons for applying Ex parte Young are extremely weak and that the circumstances of this case are fundamentally different from the circumstances under which Ex parte Young usually applies. See Id.
The Relevance of the Plaintiff Being a State-Created Entity
VOPA contends that the identity of a plaintiff as an independent state entity is not relevant to whether the Ex parte Young doctrine applies since the doctrine merely focuses on the identity of the defendant and nature of the relief sought, not on the nature or identity of the plaintiff. See Brief for Petitioner at 37. Moreover, VOPA argues that the Supreme Court has never limited who the plaintiff can be in an Ex parte Young suit. See Id. at 38. Accordingly, VOPA contends that, although the plaintiff is a public state-created entity, this is a classic Ex parte Young case that respects state dignitary interests while allowing the agency to obtain the sought-after documents in federal court. See Id. at 37–39.
The state officials, however, argue that Virginia has a sovereign interest in resolving disputes involving its state-created agencies, and that allowing such disputes to be dealt with in a federal forum violates this sovereignty. See Brief for Respondents at 23. Accordingly, the officials contend that the identity of the plaintiff is relevant in deciding whether Ex parte Young applies. See Id. at 25. The officials also argue that, because prior precedent limited the application of Ex parte Young in cases involving suits against a state by political subdivisions such as towns and municipalities, the same reasoning applies to state agencies. See Id. at 25–26. Although Virginia was financially encouraged by the federal government to create VOPA, the officials argue that Virginia has maintained its sovereign interests as it never waived or abrogated its immunity. See Id. at 24. Thus, the state officials contend that VOPA’s proposed suit in federal court against the state involving an agency it created offends traditional notions of state sovereignty and subjects it to indignity. See Id. at 25.
VOPA argues that the precedent cited by the state officials does not answer the question of whether a state-created entity can sue officials of the state that created it in federal court. See Id. at 49.VOPA contends that none of the cases cited by the officials dealing with towns and municipalities rely on the Eleventh Amendment, nor did these cases concern suits against states or state officials. See Id. at 48. Furthermore, VOPA points out that Virginia received federal funds for establishing VOPA under the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000. See Id. at 42. In light of this voluntary choice, VOPA contends that the officials’ arguments about an overreaching federal government are unpersuasive. See Id. at 42–43.
Was Federalism Review Proper?
The state officials argue that the unique nature of the claim justified the federalism review in which the Fourth Circuit engaged. See Brief for Respondents at 16. The officials argue that the courts can perform a federalism review of such claims without engaging in the kind of case-specific balancing test disfavored by the Supreme Court in the case of Coeur d’Alene. See Id. at 16; Idaho v. Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho, 521 U.S. 261, 288–297 (1997). Noting that the Supreme Court has recognized the Eleventh Amendment as a genuine check on federal authority, the officials argue that any application of Ex parte Young must reflect the federalist nature of our system of government and a respect for state sovereignty. See Brief for Respondents at 17. In this case, noting that the type of claim raised by VOPA is an issue of first impression and unheard of in the context of Ex parte Young proceedings, the officials argue that allowing such a claim would be a clear expansion of federal authority and would contradict principles of federalism and the restraining action of the Eleventh Amendment. See Id. at 17–18.
VOPA argues that Coeur d’Alene does not limit the office’s ability to rely on Ex parte Young or support the Fourth Circuit’s federalism review. See Brief for Petitioner at 50. VOPA contends that Coeur d’Alene is not applicable as it involved extraordinary relief that would have effectively transferred state land to an Indian tribe, and that the case cannot be read as a broad license for federal courts to conduct federalism review on a claim that should fall into Ex parte Young. See Id. at 50–51. VOPA claims that where the relief sought is relatively modest – such as forcing the state to turn over patient records – Ex parte Young should govern federal judicial review. See Id.
Furthermore, VOPA characterizes the review the Fourth Circuit engaged in as exactly the type of balancing test that was disfavored by Coeur d’Alene and rejected in later opinions. See Brief for Petitioner at 52–53. Still, VOPA asserts that even if this balancing test were appropriate, the suit should be allowed to proceed. See Id. at 50. VOPA contends that there is a strong federal interest in maintaining the uniformity of interpretation of federal law and that the federal courts should engage in this review. See Id. at 56. Moreover, VOPA argues that the Virginia courts do not offer a prompt and effective remedy and the nature and purpose of this action warrants a federal forum. See Id. at 53.
In contrast, the state officials argue that state administrative remedies and state court mandamus procedures offer VOPA an adequate judicial remedy to retrieve the requested documents. See Brief for Respondents at 39. Therefore, they argue, VOPA could receive prompt relief through state mechanisms provided that their claim is valid on the merits. See Id.
The crux of this case turns on whether federal or state courts are the proper forum for a dispute between a state agency and state officials that involves federal law. The state officials being sued argue that allowing an independent state agency to sue state officials in federal court would disregard the principles of federalism and ultimately give Congress additional power to limit states' rights. See Brief for Respondents, James W. Stewart, III, et al. at 34–36. On the other hand, VOPA argues that the Supreme Court’s decision in Ex parte Young allows independent agencies to sue state officials, and that such a result will help protect vulnerable individuals without unduly diminishing states' sovereign authority. See Brief for Petitioner, Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy at 51–53.
Protecting the Rights of Vulnerable Individuals
The National Disability Rights Network ("NDRN") argues that not allowing state advocacy and protection agencies to sue state officials in federal court would severely limit these organizations' ability to protect vulnerable individuals. See Brief of Amicus CuriaeNational Disability Rights Network in Support of Petitioner at 12–13. NDRN contends that Congress provided funding for the creation of agencies such as VOPA in response to widespread abuse of individuals with mental illness or developmental disabilities in state facilities. See Id. at 11. NDRN asserts that state officials often delay or deny request for information and that access to the federal courts is essential to allow these agencies to conduct investigations and advocate for vulnerable individuals. See Id. at 7–9.
Moreover, the Rhode Island Office of the Child Advocate ("OCA") argues that preventing VOPA from suing will threaten the work of similarly structured agencies. See Brief for Amicus Curiae Rhode Island Office of the Child Advocate in Support of Petitioner at 9–10. OCA maintains that organizations for the protection of vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, and disabled individuals, would lose the right to bring federal claims in federal court. See Id. at 10–11. Furthermore, the AARP argues that limitations on the ability of independent agencies to sue state officials could extend to business organizations in transportation, telecommunications, energy, and antitrust cases involving federal law. See Brief of Amici Curiae AARP, et al. in Support of Petitioner at 11–13.
State Sovereignty and Federalism
Indiana and 12 other states (“States”) argue that allowing independent agencies to sue in federal court would impose unacceptable restraints on states’ sovereignty. See Brief of Amici Curiae States of Indiana, et al. (“States”) in Support of Respondent at 14. The States argue that allowing independent agency claims would increase conflict between state agencies and decrease the power of the state to control the actions of its own agencies. See Id. at 9–10. The States assert that agencies outside of the direct control of either the governor or the state attorney general could bring suits against other branches of the state government, thereby decreasing the state's power to resolve inter-agency conflicts. See Id. at 5. The States contend that this transfer of power to state agencies would undermine the power of elected state officials who are politically accountable to the state's citizens. See Id. at 5–6.
Furthermore, the States argue that expanding Ex parte Young to allow not only private individuals but independent state agencies to sue the state under federal law represents an impermissible extension of federal power into the affairs of the state without the state's consent. See Brief of Statesat 18. The States maintain that enabling a state agency to sue state officials in federal court, as opposed to state court, necessarily injures the dignity of the state by ignoring the state's internal authority. See Id. at 18–20. The States argue that these actions allow an independent agency to sue the state concerning a conflict involving state matters in federal court under federal law and hold the state accountable to the powers of a greater sovereign. See Id. at 25.
Nevertheless, the United States argues that allowing an independent agency to sue state officials for the protection of vulnerable individuals does not threaten a state's sovereign authority. See Brief of Amicus Curiae United States of America in Support of Petitioner at 26–27. The United States contends that Virginia chose to create VOPA and adhere to federal requirements, and preventing VOPA to sue would undermine the enforcement scheme established by Congress. See Id. at 26. Additionally, the United States argues that a decision for the state officials would create an unacceptable two-tier enforcement scheme where protection and advocacy agencies could sue private facilities in federal court but could only sue public entities in state court. See Id. at 30. The United States maintains that this unbalanced result would make VOPA and similar agencies unable to adequately investigate complaints because of the limited remedies available in state court. See Id. at 30–31.
This case will determine whether the Ex parte Young exception to the general prohibition, enshrined in the Eleventh Amendment, against suing states in federal court permits a state agency to sue state officials to obtain prospective relief. VOPA argues that the Ex parte Young exception allows this action for prospective relief to remedy an ongoing violation of federal law by state officials, despite the fact that the plaintiff is a state-created agency. The state officials argue that Ex parte Young does not extend to suits brought against states by their own state agencies and that the principles of federalism counsel strongly against the exercise of federal jurisdiction in this case. A decision for the state officials may affect the ability of public protection and advocacy agencies to protect vulnerable individuals from neglect. Alternatively, a decision for VOPA may increase conflicts among a state's agencies and undermine state power in favor of federal authority.
· Annotated U.S. Constitution: Eleventh Amendment
· Richmond Times, Michael Martz: Watchdog Group Faults Lynchburg Facility for Mentally Retarded (Jan. 6, 2006)
· Constitutional Law Prof Blog, Steve Vladeck: VOPA v. Reinhard and Ex parte Young: Why Cert. Should (and Will) Be Granted (May 20, 2010)