Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The doctrine of sovereign immunity generally shields a state from suit absent its consent. In Alden v Maine, 527 US 706, the Supreme Court of the United States found that State sovereign immunity is "implicit in the constitutional design." States have claimed sovereign immunity with respect to their being sued in federal court for alleged violation of various acts of Congress including the Fair Labor Standards Act. New York's claim of sovereign immunity was a critical element in resolving the Alston case.
In 1991, Benjamin Alston and 102 other State parole officers sued the State, claiming that it had failed to pay them overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 1997, the United States District Court, Northern District of New York, dismissed the action based on the US Supreme Court's ruling in Seminole Tribe of Florida v Florida, 517 US 44. In Seminole the high court said that Article I of the Constitution did not give Congress the power to defeat a states' Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity from suits commenced or prosecuted in Federal courts.
Alston appealed to the Second Circuit United States Court of Appeals, but the parties agreed to a voluntary dismissal of the action in view of the fact that the Second Circuit had ruled against other claimants in a similar case.
In 1998, Alston filed the same lawsuit in the New York's State Court of Claims. The Court of Claims dismissed the complaint holding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Alston's petition was untimely.
The Appellate Division affirmed the Court of Claims' ruling. It said that "when New York waived its immunity subject to a six-month Statute of Limitations for FLSA claims brought against it as provided by the Court of Claims Act Section 10 ..., such limitation could not be overridden by the Article I powers delegated to Congress, whereby a two or three-year Statute of Limitations was created for FLSA claims." In other words, Alston should have filed his petition with the Court of Claims within six months of the "accrual of his cause of action." The Court of Appeals sustained the Appellate Division's determination.
In the words of the Court of Appeals:
"The issue before us is whether, under the terms of the waiver of sovereign immunity found in Court of Claims Act Section 8, the State retained its immunity as to these claims because claimants failed to comply with the time limitations set forth in Court of Claims Act Section 10(4), upon which the [State's] waiver was conditioned."
The court's conclusion: the State retained its immunity. Why? Because, explained the court, although Section 8 of the Court of Claims Act provides that "the state hereby waives its immunity from liability and action and hereby assumes liability and consents to have the same determined in accordance with the same rules of law as applied to actions in the supreme court against individuals or corporations, provided the claimant complies with the limitations of this article."
Accordingly, the State's waiver of sovereign immunity was not absolute, but was conditioned upon a claimant's compliance with the limitations on the waiver, including the relevant filing deadlines.
The Court of Appeals ruled that "because claimants failed to file their claims in the Court of Claims within six months after their accrual ... and did not timely seek relief from the court under Court of Claims Act 10(6), the State was entitled to dismissal of this claim on sovereign immunity grounds.
Reprinted with permission New York Public Personnel Law
Mitchell H. Rubinstein