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Duffy v. Riveland: Some Comments Regarding the Court's January 20, 1998 Summary Judgment Ruling

By Leonard J. Feldman

On January 20, 1998, the district court in Duffy v. Riveland granted summary judgment on a state law claim presented by plaintiff Sean Duffy. The Court found that it had jurisdiction to address the claim, that the defendants--the Washington Department of Corrections and several high-ranking officers--had violated a state statute, and that Mr. Duffy was therefore entitled to monetary and equitable relief under state law. The Court subsequently denied the defendants' motion for reconsideration.

The Court's order is important for several reasons. The order confirms, for example, that parties can seek relief in federal court under both federal and state law. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1367, federal district courts have "supplemental jurisdiction" to consider state law claims that are filed along with one or more federal claims and present similar factual issues. This aspect of the Court's ruling applies in all federal cases, whether based in part on Washington law or on the law of some other state. It teaches us that state claims can and should be presented in federal court, along with factually-related federal causes of action.

The Court's order also examines the scope of the so-called " Pennhurst doctrine," a doctrine that generally limits the federal courts' jurisdiction to grant relief against state officials under state law. The Court held that, under Pennhurst , a state cannot be sued in federal court absent its consent. The Court noted, however, that the defendants had not asserted that they were immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment and therefore concluded that Pennhurst did not apply. This aspect of the Court's ruling highlights the importance of analyzing carefully the specific defenses that a defendant has (or, in the Duffy case, has not) asserted.

Finally, the Court's ruling also explores two important state law issues. The first such issue is the scope of RCW 2.42.120, a Washington statute that requires state agencies to provide certified interpreters at "quasi-judicial hearings," including all prison disciplinary hearings. The Court rejected the defendants' argument that the phrase "quasi-judicial hearing" is limited to hearings that involve allegations that a prisoner has violated a criminal statute. Instead, the phrase includes all disciplinary hearings.

The second state law issue that the Court explored relates to the scope of qualified immunity under Washington law. Under federal law, a plaintiff must establish (i) that the defendants violated clearly established federal law, and (ii) that their conduct was unreasonable. Thus, a defendant can violate federal law and not be liable. Under Washington law, in contrast, qualified immunity does not apply if a defendant "fails to follow a statutory procedure," as was the case in Duffy . This ruling is extremely significant to any plaintiff in Washington (or in a state that has similar qualified immunity rules) who asserts that a state official failed to comply with a particular statutory mandate.

Readers should note that this is an unpublished ruling. See: Duffy v. Riveland , Case No. C92-1596R and 93-673R.

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