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9th Cir.: Nevada Waived Sovereign Immunity from FLSA Claims by Removing Lawsuit to Federal Court

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Walden v. State of Nevada

This case was before the court on the State of Nevada’s interlocutory appeal, following the district court’s denial of its motion to dismiss on jursidictional grounds.  Addressing an issue of first impression, the Ninth Circuit held that removal from state court to federal court constitutes a waiver of sovereign immunity as to all federal claims, including the FLSA claims at issue here.

In Walden, state correctional officers alleged that the Nevada Department of Corrections improperly failed to pay them for pre- and post-shift work at state prisons and other facilities. They filed suit in state court, alleging minimum wage and overtime claims under the FLSA, in addition to a minimum-wage claim under Nevada’s Constitution, a overtime claim under Nevada law, and a claim for breach of contract.

Nevada removed the case to federal court and moved for judgment on the pleadings with regard to the FLSA claims, and contended that it was “immune from liability as a matter of law.” Nevada did not explicitly mention state sovereign immunity or the Eleventh Amendment, though.

The district court requested briefing on the question whether state sovereign immunity applies to the FLSA claims against the state following its removal of the case to federal court.

The district court held that Nevada had waived its sovereign immunity as to the officers’ FLSA claim by virtue of its removal of the case to federal court, and denied the state’s motion to dismiss.  Nevada filed an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

While the particular issue at bar was one of first impression, the Ninth Circuit looked to other cases in which states had been held to waive soverign immunity when they removed federal claims to federal court, to reach its holding.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court had previously held that a state can waive sovereign immunity with regard to state law claims by removing them to federal court and the Ninth Circuit itself had previously held that, at least in some circumstances a state can waive soverign immunity by removing federal statutory claims to federal court.

The court then went one step further: “We now hold that a State that removes a case to federal court waives its immunity from suit on all federal-law claims in the case, including those federal-law claims that Congress failed to apply to the states through unequivocal and valid abrogation of their Eleventh Amendment immunity,” it wrote.

As the Supreme Court had observed, it was inconsistent for a state simultaneously to invoke federal jurisdiction, thus acknowledging the federal court’s authority over the case at hand, while claiming it enjoyed sovereign immunity from the “Judicial Power of the United States” in the matter before it.

Thus, the Ninth Circuit held that a state waives soverign immunity as to all federal statutory claims in a case which the state has removed to federal court, including those federal claims that Congress did not apply to the states through unequivocal and valid abrogation of their Eleventh Amendment immunity (like the FLSA).

Click Walden v. State of Nevada to read the entire decision.

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