Ex Parte Young: A Partial Way Around Sovereign Immunity

The Supreme Court’s decision in Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), stands for the principle that sovereign immunity does not prevent people harmed by state agencies acting in violation of federal law from suing the officials in charge of the agencies in their individual capacity for injunctive relief. In the employment context, this principle is important because it allows the employee of a state agency that violates federal employment laws to sue the agency head in his or her individual capacity for a court order requiring the agency head to remedy the violation prospectively. 

Constitutional Background

The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:

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.

Courts have interpreted the Eleventh Amendment and common law as barring suits for damages against states or state agencies. The sovereign immunity encompasses suits for damages by an employee against his or her state government employer, unless the employee’s claim is one for which sovereign immunity has been validly abrogated by Congress or waived by the state. 

Sovereign immunity is the privilege of the sovereign not to be sued without its consent. As the Supreme Court observed in Virginia Off. for Prot. & Advoc. v. Stewart, 563 U.S. 247, 253-56 (2011), the Court has long interpreted the Eleventh Amendment to confirm the framer’s structural understanding that States entered the Union with their sovereign immunity intact. Thus, the Court had held that States have retained their traditional immunity from suit, “except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional amendments.” Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 713 (1999). A State may waive its sovereign immunity at its pleasure, College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd., 527 U.S. 666, 675–676 (1999), and in some circumstances Congress may abrogate it by appropriate legislation. But in the absence of waiver or valid abrogation, federal courts may not entertain a private person’s suit for damages against a State. Stewart, 563 U.S. at 253-56

Facts

Ex Parte Young established an important limit on the principle of sovereign immunity. The case involved a challenge to a Minnesota law reducing the freight rates that railroads could charge. A railroad shareholder claimed that the new rates were unconstitutional, and obtained a federal injunction against Edward Young, the Attorney General of Minnesota. The injunction forbade Young in his official capacity to enforce the state law. See Stewart, 563 U.S. at 253-56.

Young then violated the federal injunction by initiating an enforcement action in state court. The state court held Young in contempt and committed him to federal custody. In Young’s ensuing habeas corpus petition to the Supreme Court, Young challenged his confinement by arguing that Minnesota’s sovereign immunity deprived the federal court of jurisdiction to enjoin him from performing his official duties. Id.

The Court’s Decision

The Ex Parte Young Court disagreed with Young. The Court explained that because an unconstitutional legislative enactment is “void,” a state official who enforces that law “comes into conflict with the superior authority of [the] Constitution,” and therefore is “stripped of his official or representative character and is subjected in his person to the consequences of his individual conduct. The State has no power to impart to him any immunity from responsibility to the supreme authority of the United States.” Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S., at 159–160.

The Court has noted that this doctrine has existed alongside its sovereign-immunity jurisprudence for more than a century, accepted as necessary to “permit the federal courts to vindicate federal rights.” Pennhurst State Sch. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 105 (1984).

Ex Parte Young doctrine rests on the premise or “fiction,” id., at 114, n. 25, that when a federal court commands a state official to do nothing more than refrain from violating federal law, he is not the State for sovereign-immunity purposes. Stewart, 563 U.S. at 255. The doctrine is limited to that precise situation, and does not apply “when the state is the real, substantial party in interest,” as when the “judgment sought would expend itself on the public treasury or domain, or interfere with public administration[.]” Id. (cites and internal quotes omitted).

In Verizon Md. Inc. v. Public Serv. Comm’n of Md., 535 U.S. 635 (2002), the Court held that “[i]n determining whether the doctrine of Ex parte Young avoids an Eleventh Amendment bar to suit, a court need only conduct a ‘straightforward inquiry into whether [the] complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.’ ” Id., at 645 (quoting Idaho v. Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho, 521 U.S. 261, 296 (1997) (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment)). 

Under this test, an employee of a state agency whose federal employment rights are violated could potentially file a suit for prospective relief asking a federal court to order the lead agency official to stop the violation of federal law — even when the federal law at issue is one where the State itself is protected by sovereign immunity, meaning that it cannot be sued for damages. 

Analysis

In sum, Ex Parte Young stands for the principle that sovereign immunity does not prevent people harmed by state agencies acting in violation of federal law from suing the officials in charge of the agencies in their individual capacity for injunctive relief. In the employment context, this principle allows the employee of a state agency that violates a federal employment law to sue the agency head in his or her individual capacity for a court order requiring the agency head to remedy the violation prospectively.

This article was also published on TimCoffieldAttorney.com.


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