Eleventh Amendment Immunity in the Eleventh Circuit

Author: Brynn Stylinski, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

In Pellitteri v. Prine, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that a Georgia sheriff, in hiring and firing deputies, acts as an arm of the state and is therefore entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.[1] The plaintiff in Pellitteri was a former sheriff’s deputy who had injured her knee on the job. She requested to be put on temporary light duty, a regularly granted accommodation for those injured on the job, but her request was denied and she was later terminated by Sheriff Prine.[2] She brought a discrimination claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Sheriff Prine filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that that the § 1983 and ADA claims were barred by the Eleventh Amendment because he was acting in his official capacity; the district court denied the motion.[3] The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s denial and dismissed the claims, holding that the sheriff was acting as an arm of the state when he terminated the plaintiff and was thus immune from suit.[4]

Immunity in the Eleventh Circuit

Under the Eleventh Amendment, suits by individuals against a state before a federal court are prohibited.[5] Courts have interpreted this to mean that not only are states themselves immune from suit, but individuals acting as an arm of the state are immune as well.[6] The Eleventh Circuit’s precedent in Manders v. Lee sets out four factors to consider when determining whether an entity is acting an arm of the state: “(1) how state law defines the entity; (2) what degree of control the State maintains over the entity; (3) where the entity derives its funds; and (4) who is responsible for judgments against the entity.”[7]

Application of the Manders Analysis in Pellitteri

The Eleventh Circuit applied the Manders factors in Pellitteri and found that the sheriff’s office was acting as an arm of the state, reaching the opposite conclusion of the earlier unpublished opinion of Keene v. Prine.[8] The court found that the first factor—how the state law defines the entity—favored the existence of immunity.   Despite being elected by the county and labeled as county officers by the Georgia Constitution, Georgia sheriffs operate independently of the county and receive their duties from the state. They “enforce the law and preserve the peace on behalf of the sovereign state.”[9] The court also pointed to the fact that the state constitution grants the state legislature the exclusive authority to establish and to control the duties and powers of a county’s sheriff’s office while explicitly denying the county the authority to do so. In fact, the authority to hire and fire is granted by the state itself.[10] All of these factors led the court to conclude, along with the courts in Manders and Keene, that the state law’s definition of the sheriff’s office points towards that office acting as an arm of the state.[11]

The Eleventh Circuit also found that the second factor—the state’s control over the entity—pointed towards the office being an arm of the state. The court found that the state controlled the personnel decisions of the sheriff’s office through its implementation of standards and procedures for the certification process, its laws allowing for the creation of a “Peace Officer Standards and Training Council” for officer discipline, the governor’s powers to investigate and suspend sheriff’s office personnel for misconduct, and the fact that the authority of the office in general comes from the state.[12]

The third factor—the source of the entity’s funding—was found neither to favor nor to disfavor the existence of immunity. Though all of the funding for the sheriff’s office comes directly from the county, the fact that state law requires the county to provide the funds while preventing it from dictating how the funds are spent, kept this factor from being dispositive of the immunity issue.[13]

The final factor—the party responsible for judgments against the entity—weighed against immunity. The sheriff’s office itself would be responsible for paying any judgments against it. The money would be taken out of its own budget and would not drain the state’s treasury, thus disfavoring the presence of immunity.[14] It went on to say, however, that the first three factors all favored a finding of immunity and that the final factor could not outweigh the others.[15] Thus, because the sheriff’s office acted as an arm of the state in deciding to terminate Pellitteri, the office possessed Eleventh Amendment immunity from Pellitteri’s suit.

The Unnecessary Break from Precedent

The Eleventh Circuit had addressed a nearly identical situation in Keene only three years earlier, but came to the opposite conclusion, and the court was incorrect in impliedly overruling that decision. In Keene, the very same sheriff had been sued for discriminatory termination based on sex and age.[16] The court applied the same analysis in Keene that it applied in Pelliteri. It found that the factor of state definition pointed towards the sheriff acting as an arm of the state. However, the state’s lack of control over the office’s personnel decisions, the direct county funding, and the fact that a judgment would be paid directly from the sheriff’s budget all meant that the sheriff lacked immunity.[17] Though the court in Pellitteri agreed with the court in Keene about the weight of the first and fourth factors (state definition and paying judgments), it did not properly consider the sheriff’s independence in its day-to-day personnel decisions or the limited scope of the state’s power in its analysis of the state’s control over the entity. Instead of considering the state’s lack of day-to-day influence, the Pellitteri court relied on the broad boundaries set by state law. Furthermore, it incorrectly applied the third Manders factor—the funding of the office—by ignoring the differences in which functions of the sheriff’s department were being funded. Thus, the court erred in finding that the majority of the factors favored immunity.

In applying the first of the Manders factors, the court was consistent in both Keene and Pellitterri, finding that the state law’s definition of the sheriff’s office pointed towards it acting as an arm of the state.[18] Both courts emphasized that the office was working towards state ends in its performance of duties assigned by the state.[19] Likewise, both courts recognized that the state was not responsible for any judgments against the office, meaning that the fourth factor pointed to a lack of immunity.[20] The source of funding is generally an important factor in evaluating Eleventh Amendment immunity, and the county itself, not the state, would replace any funds a potential judgment would deplete.[21]

The Pellitteri court incorrectly deviated from the conclusion in Keene, however, when it found that the state exercised sufficient control over the hiring and firing of deputies for the sheriff to act as an arm of the state when he terminated the plaintiff. The court emphasized that: the state established the certification process, the state created the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (Council), and the governor had wide latitude to discipline those employees who violate the law.[22] However, it unfairly dismissed the Keene court’s finding that the sheriff acts independently in its hiring and firing decisions, which the Keene court had properly distinguished from any disciplinary authority the state was found to have in Manders.[23] The Pellitteri court also failed to take into account the narrowness of the certification and disciplinary authority of the Council and the governor. The certification process has only a limited impact on the hiring process as it merely sets the floor for who may apply for positions within the office. The state plays no role in the process of determining who among the certified applicants will be hired.[24] The roles of the Council and the governor are similarly limited in the context of termination. Each may only become involved in one of the following situations: the employee is convicted of a crime, committed a crime of moral turpitude, committed fraud in the application for certification, committed misconduct in the course of duties, or is found to be incapable of performing the job’s functions.[25] As the Keene court stated, the state may only “enforce the outermost bounds of sheriffs’ conduct generally, and . . . otherwise does not inject itself into sheriffs’ personnel decisionmaking [sic].”[26]

Similarly, the Pellitteri court erred in finding that the factor of funding, which it conceded came from the county, supported the existence of immunity. The court relied heavily on the holding in Manders that county funding did not necessarily mean that the sheriff’s office was acting under county control.[27] However, the Pellitteri court failed to recognize that in Manders, the court was addressing the sheriff’s policies on the use of excessive force on prisoners. The Manders court found that because the state provided funding for yearly training, disciplining policy violations, and to transfer offenders to institutions under the sheriff’s control, the state controlled the department’s fulfillment of these policies, and the county’s mere funding of salaries did not establish control over the sheriff’s excessive force policies.[28] In Pellitteri, a county-funded sheriff’s budget was used for the hiring and firing of employees, with no state funding of training for personnel decisions. Because in Pellitteri the county had the authority to unilaterally cut the sheriff’s office budget, which could impact hiring and firing decisions, it exercised a degree of control over the sheriff’s office not seen in Manders.[29] Hence, the state’s involvement and control in this context was more limited and actually was comparable to Keene. The Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning in Pellitteri that the state had control over the budget thus incorrectly relied on an inapplicable finding from Manders, a decision that predated Keene.[30] In Pellitteri, the majority of the Manders factors thus supported the argument that the sheriff’s office was not acting as an arm of the state in its decision to terminate the plaintiff, and the sheriff should not have been found to possess Eleventh Amendment immunity.

The Impact of Pellitteri

As a result of this decision, employees of sheriffs’ offices in Georgia, and potentially elsewhere in the Eleventh Circuit, will have very few options when they feel that they have been terminated on discriminatory grounds. If the sheriff’s office is immune from employment suits, it will likely not be held accountable for discrimination. This is the second claim of discrimination in three years against the same office that has come before the Eleventh Circuit. Thus, a sheriff’s office that has repeatedly been accused of discrimination will not even face litigation over the alleged discrimination because of its Eleventh Amendment immunity, and future plaintiffs who may be discriminated against by the office will not have their day in court to plead their case. This ruling by the Eleventh Circuit will prevent this Georgia sheriff’s office—and potentially others—from being held accountable and will likely slow any ability of the office to change.

[1] 776 F.3d 777 (11th Cir. 2015).

[2] Id. at 778-9.

[3] Id. at 779.

[4] Id. The district court denied the motion to dismiss based on an earlier Eleventh Circuit ruling that a sheriff was not entitled to immunity in the context of an employment discrimination.

[5] U.S. Const. amend. XI; Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1 (1890).

[6] Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2003) (internal citations omitted).

[7] Manders, 338 F.3d at 1309.

[8] Pellitteri, 776 F.3d at 779, 783; cf. Keene v. Prine, 477 F. App’x 575 (11th Cir. 2012) (holding that the sheriff’s decision to terminate employees was not subject to Eleventh Amendment Immunity).

[9] Pellitteri, 776 F.3d at 780 (citing Ga. Const. art. IX, § 1 ¶ III(a); and Manders, 338 F.3d at 1311-1313, 1319).

[10] Id. (internal citations omitted).

[11] Id.; see also Manders 338 F.3d at 1319, and Keene, 477 F. App’x at 578.

[12] Pellitteri, 776 F.3d at 781-2 (citing Ga. Code Ann. §§ 15-16-3, 15-16-26, 35-8-8(a)(1)-(4), (7)-(8)).

[13] Id. at 782.

[14] Id. at 783.

[15] Id.

[16] 477 F. App’x at 576-7.

[17] Id. at 578-80.

[18] Id. at 578.

[19] Keene, 477 F. App’x at 578; Pellitteri, 776 F.3d at 780.

[20] Keene, 477 F. App’x at 579; Pellitteri, 776 F.3d at 782-3.

[21] Keene, 477 F. App’x at 579.

[22] Pellitteri, 776 F.3d at 781.

[23] 477 F. App’x at 578 (“our assessment of sheriffs’ personnel management differs from that of the use-of-force policy at issue in Manders, where we found that ‘only the State possesses control over sheriffs’ force policy and that control is direct and significant in many areas, including training and discipline.’” (citing Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304, 1320)).

[24] Id. (citing Ga. Code Ann. § 15-16-23 and Brown v. Dorsey, 625 S.E.2d. 16, 21 (Ct. App. Ga. 2005)).

[25] Ga. Code Ann. §§ 15-16-26; 35-8-7.1.

[26] 477 F. App’x at 578

[27] Pellitteri, 776 F.3d at 782

[28] Manders, 338 F.3d at 1323-24. The county could not alter the sheriff’s office salaries, or determine how the budget was spent.

[29] Keene, 477 F. App’x at 578-79.

[30] Pellitteri, 776 F.3d 777 (citing Manders, 338 F.3d 1304).

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