Thursday, February 26, 2015

You can sue community colleges in federal court

If ever there was a convoluted constitutional doctrine, it's the Eleventh Amendment, which says, "The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." It seems to say that someone from New York cannot sue Pennsylvania in federal court, but that's not how the courts have interpreted it.

The case is Leitner v. Westchester Community College, decided on February 25. The plaintiff taught at WCC and was disciplined for saying something offensive in class. When she sued WCC in federal court, the college argued that she could not do so because WCC is an arm of the state. Despite what the Eleventh Amendment actually says, the Supreme Court holds that you can't sue any state in federal court, even if you're a New Yorker who wants to sue New York. There are exceptions to this rule, i.e., if the state waives sovereign immunity, like under Title VII.

Anyway, the Court of Appeals notes that, over the years, the Second Circuit has devised two separate multi-part tests in determining whether a public entity is an arm of the state for purposes of Eleventh Amendment immunity. That's right, two separate tests, the Mancuso test (1996) and the Clissuras test (2004), both of which are still in operation in our Circuit. Rather than favor one test over the other, the Second Circuit (Leval, Chin and Carney) says that under either standard, WCC and community colleges in New York in general are not arms of the state and may still be sued in federal court.

Under the more elaborate Mancuso test, here are the relevant factors:

(1) how the entity is referred to in the documents that created it; (2) how the governing members of the entity are appointed; (3) how the entity is funded; (4) whether the entityʹs function is traditionally one of local or state government; (5) whether the state has a veto power over the entityʹs actions; and (6) whether the entityʹs obligations are binding upon the state.

But the ultimate question considers "the two main aims of the Eleventh Amendment, as identified by the Supreme Court: preserving the stateʹs treasury and protecting the integrity of the state." While the state gives WCC one-third of its budget, the state is not responsible for satisfying WCC's debts or judgments. The college is also not substantially controlled by the state; the governor only appoints four WCC board members. The remaining six board members are appointed by the County and a student body election. The state does not control WCC's day-to-day affairs. Under this analysis, although SUNY colleges are arms of the state, and WCC is a part of SUNY, since WCC operates different from a four-year SUNY college, WCC is not an arm of the state and may be sued in federal court.

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