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U.S. Supreme Court: State P&A Can Sue Another State Agency for Records

U.S. Supreme Court: State P&A Can Sue Another State Agency for Records

by David Reutter

The U.S. Supreme Court held on April 19, 2011 that sovereign immunity does not apply when one agency of a state sues another for violation of federal law. The ruling applies only to obtaining injunctive relief; it does not apply to payment of funds from the state treasury.

The case began when the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy (VOPA) filed suit in federal district court seeking an injunction against James Stewart, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, requiring him to provide access to records concerning two patient deaths and an injury at state mental hospitals.

VOPA’s suit was brought pursuant to the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000 (DD Act) and the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act (PAIMI Act). The DD Act provides federal funds to states to improve community services, such as medical care and job training, for people with developmental disabilities. To receive that funding, however, a state must establish a protection and advocacy (P&A) system “to protect and advocate for the rights of individuals with developmental disabilities.” The P&A system “shall ... have the authority to investigate incidents of abuse and neglect ... if the incidents are reported to the system or if there is probable cause to believe” they occurred. P&A agencies advocate for people with mental disabilities in state hospitals and schools, and, sometimes, in state prison systems.

Subject to statutory requirements, the P&A must be given access to “all records” related to persons who may have been abused, as well as “other records that are relevant to conducting an investigation.” The PAIMI Act also allows the P&A system to “pursue legal, administrative, and other appropriate remedies or approaches to ensure the protection of” people with mental disabilities.

States may designate an entity to be a P&A and may not change that selection absent “good cause.” Virginia is one of only eight states that designate a government entity as its P&A system. VOPA opened an investigation in 2006 into two deaths and an injury at state-run mental hospitals. Stewart refused to provide risk-management or mortality reviews related to those patients, arguing that such records were protected by state law.

After VOPA filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for an injunction to obtain the records, Stewart moved to dismiss under the Eleventh Amendment. The district court denied the motion, but the Fourth Circuit reversed. The appellate court said VOPA’s lawsuit was an “intramural contest” that “encroaches more severely on the dignity and sovereignty of the state than an Ex parte Young [209 U.S. 123 (1908)] action brought by a private plaintiff.” See: Virginia v. Reinhard, 568 F.3d 110 (4th Cir. 2009).

The Supreme Court had explained in Young that when an unconstitutional legislative enactment is “void,” a state official trying to enforce that enactment is “stripped of his official or representative character and is subjected in his person to the consequences of his individual conduct.” The state cannot impart immunity to the official in such cases.

The Young doctrine has existed alongside sovereign immunity jurisprudence for over a century. It allows a federal court to vindicate federal rights, empowering the court to command a state official to refrain from violating federal law. It 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.”

In Verizon Maryland, Inc. v. Public Service Comm’n of Md., 535 U.S. 635 (2002), the Supreme Court held that when “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.’”

In this case, the Supreme Court found that VOPA’s suit satisfied that inquiry. Stewart conceded that if VOPA was a private organization rather then a state agency, it could proceed with the lawsuit. The Court did not see a reason for a different outcome here, as the “general criterion for determining when the suit is in fact against the sovereign is the effect of the relief sought.”

Since VOPA was seeking an injunction to obtain records that it was entitled to receive under federal law, the state’s dignity was not offended by the maintenance of the suit. The Fourth Circuit’s decision was therefore reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy v. Stewart, 131 S.Ct. 1632 (2011).

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Related legal cases

Virginia v. Reinhard

Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy v. Stewart