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Seventh Circuit Holds Eleventh Amendment Bars Plaintiff's Claims Against State Mental Health Institution


HLD, v. 30, n. 11 (November 2002)

Seventh Circuit Holds Eleventh Amendment Bars Plaintiff's Claims Against State Mental Health Institution

Plaintiff Harold Sonnleitner was employed as a supervisory nurse at the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services (WDHFS). He was suspended for three days for making inappropriate sexual remarks. While the appeal of this disciplinary action was pending, Sonnleitner committed three violations of WDHFS rules. Following a pre-disciplinary meeting, Sonnleitner was immediately suspended without pay. He subsequently was demoted for failing to meet his duties and violating rules. Sonnleitner appealed the demotion, and the Wisconsin Personnel Commission (Commission) determined that the demotion was excessive punishment and that a five-day suspension was appropriate. Sonnleitner was given the five-day suspension but was not reinstated to his former position. Sonnleitner sued to enforce the Commission's ruling and also filed a � 1983 claim against WDHFS and his supervisors (collectively defendants), alleging that he was deprived of his right to a supervisory position in violation of due process. The trial court dismissed the state law claim for procedural error and held that defendants were entitled to qualified immunity with respect to the �1983 claim. The trial court also held that Sonnleitner had no right to be reinstated under state law because he could not state a federal cause of action under � 1983.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the trial court. First, the appeals court held that Sonnleitner adequately alleged a procedural due process violation and held that he may have been deprived of procedural due process rights when he was demoted without a predisciplinary hearing as to all the alleged misconduct that was stated in the demotion letter. The appeals court looked to Gilbert v. Homar, 520 U.S. 924 (1997), in analyzing the facts of the instant case, and also applied the three-part balancing test set forth in Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976). Applying the balancing test, the appeals court concluded that a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether the demotion was approved based on more serious charges that were stated in a report that Sonnleitner was unable to challenge, and whether the administrative appeals before the Commission satisfied the minimum requirements of due process.

Second, the appeals court held that the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because Sonnleitner did not allege a violation of a clearly established constitutional right. The appeals court held that Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 523 (1985) (finding that employees' procedural due process rights were violated when they were fired with no pre-termination hearing), was factually distinguishable because the plaintiffs' in that case were not afforded any pre-termination proceedings at all whereas Sonnleitner was (1) not terminated and (2) afforded "some measure of pre-deprivation process."

The appeals court next reiterated the three exceptions to Eleventh Amendment immunity to lawsuits in federal court:

(1) Congress has abrogated the state's immunity from suit through an unequivocal expression of its intent to do so through a valid exercise of its power; (2) a state has properly waived its immunity and consented to suit in federal court; and (3) the plaintiff seeks prospective equitable relief for ongoing violations of federal law . . . under the Ex Parte Young doctrine.

The court noted that Sonnleitner failed to respond to the defendants' argument that the first two exceptions applied. Turning to the third exception, the appeals court concluded that it did not apply because, although Sonnleitner's request for reinstatement constituted prospective relief, the underlying procedural due process claim was not "ongoing."

Accordingly, the appeals held that, although Sonnleitner's due process rights may have been violated, remand for trial was unwarranted because defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

Sonnleitner v. York, No. 01-3966, 2002 WL 31029276 (7th Cir. Sept. 12, 2002) (26 pages).

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