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
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).