Tag Archives: South Carolina

D.S.C.: South Carolina Is Sovereign Immune From FLSA Suits Seeking Money Damages

Morris v. South Carolina Dept. of Corrections

In this case Plaintiff, an employee of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”), sought compensation for overtime work under Section 16(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).  The Defendant moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), claiming it was sovereign immune from such claims.  The Court agreed and granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss stating:

“SCDC argues that Plaintiff’s claim is barred because the state is immune from claims for money damages brought under Section 16(b). In making these arguments, SCDC relies on Alden v. Maine, which held that states are immune from private suits filed in state courts for damages brought under Section 16(b) of the FLSA. Based on Alden and its progeny, Defendant argues that state agencies are immune from private suits for money damages under the FLSA whether that suit is brought in state or federal court. See Alden v. Me., 527 U.S. 706, 119 S.Ct. 2240, 144 L.Ed.2d 636 (1999); see also Dkt. No. 15 at 4. Plaintiff disagrees, arguing that Alden applies only to FLSA suits brought in state court. Dkt. No. 16 at 2.

State Sovereign Immunity. The doctrine of state sovereign immunity bars suits in federal court for money damages against an “unconsenting State.” Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 663, 94 S.Ct. 1347, 39 L.Ed.2d 662 (1974); see also Alden, 527 U.S. at 713 (noting that, while “Eleventh Amendment immunity” is often used as convenient shorthand for state sovereign immunity, the latter is “a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty which the States enjoyed before the ratification of the Constitution, and which they retain today … except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional Amendments.”). This immunity extends to “arm[s] of the State,” Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280, 97 S.Ct. 568, 50 L.Ed.2d 471 (1974), including state agencies and state officers acting in their official capacity.   Gray v. Laws, 51 F.3d 426, 430 (4th Cir.1995). This doctrine does not, however, preclude private suits against state officials (but not the state or state agency itself) for prospective or declaratory relief designed to remedy ongoing violations of federal law. Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 157, 28 S.Ct. 441, 52 L.Ed. 714 (1908); see also Virginia v. Reinhard, 568 F.3d 110 (4th Cir.2009).

Congress may abrogate state sovereign immunity, but “only by stating unequivocally its desire to do so and only pursuant to a valid exercise of constitutional authority.” Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 411 F.3d 474, 484 (4th Cir.2005) (citing Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 55, 116 S.Ct. 1114, 134 L.Ed.2d 252 (1996)).  Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Amendment’s enforcement provision, provides one (and possibly the only) basis on which Congress may, under specific circumstances, abrogate state sovereign immunity. Nev. Dep’t of Human Res. v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721, 727, 123 S.Ct. 1972, 155 L.Ed.2d 953 (2003) (noting that, while Congress may abrogate the States’ sovereign immunity under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, it may not do so “pursuant to its Article I power over commerce”) (citing Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 456, 96 S.Ct. 2666, 49 L.Ed.2d 614 (1976)); see also Seminole Tribe, 517 U.S. at 73 (“Article I cannot be used to circumvent the constitutional limitations placed upon federal jurisdiction”).

Applied to Section 16(b) of the FLSA. In Alden, the Supreme Court held that states are immune from private suits for damages brought under Section 16(b) of the FLSA in state court. The Court’s reasoning was based, in part, on the principle that Congress cannot extend state court jurisdiction beyond where it may extend federal court jurisdiction. See 527 U.S. at 754 (“We are aware of no constitutional precept that would admit of a congressional power to require state courts to entertain federal suits which are not within the judicial power of the United States and could not be heard in federal courts.”). Put differently, as applied to Section 16(b) of the FLSA, it is precisely because Congress lacks the authority to subject states to suit in federal court that it also lacks the authority to subject states to suit in their own courts. Thus, the Alden rationale fully supports Defendant’s position.

Prior to Alden, the Fourth Circuit ruled that state sovereign immunity bars Section 16(b) claims for damages brought by state employees in federal court. See Abril v. Va., 145 F.3d 182, 186-89 (4th Cir.1998) (concluding that Section 16(b) was not a valid abrogation of state sovereign immunity under Congress’s Section 5 enforcement powers). No subsequent rulings appear to alter this rule, which is consistent with the rationale in Alden. As explained in Rodriguez v. Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, a post-Alden decision addressing a Section 16(b) claim for damages, Seminole Tribe and Alden operate in tandem to protect states from liability for money damages under the FLSA. Rodriguez v. P.R. Fed. Affairs Admin., 435 F.3d 378, 380 (D.C.Cir.2006) (“Taken together, Seminole Tribe and Alden mean that state employees no longer have any ‘court of competent jurisdiction,’ 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), in which to sue their employers for FLSA violations.”). While not binding, the court finds the Rodriguez court’s reasoning persuasive.”

Thus, the Court concluded that, “SCDC is immune from suits for money damages brought pursuant to Section 16(b) of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).”  Accordingly, Plaintiff’s case was dismissed.

To read the Court’s entire decision, click here.

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