Monday, June 16, 2008
The Supreme Court granted cert. today in Haywood v. Drown, a case involving a New York law that requires all suits against state correctional officers to be brought in the state's court of claims. Steve Vladeck at Prawfsblawg has a great post on the state court's decision here. At first glance, this may seem to have little to do with employment law, but it has potentially far-reaching effects in public employment cases.
At issue in Haywood is whether a law that relegates all claims against correctional officers--including claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983--is a violation of the Supremacy Clause. States cannot unduly interfere with an individual's ability to bring a § 1983 claim, nor can they discriminate against federal claims. At the same time, however,
The Supremacy Clause gives states the power to deny enforcement of a federal right if they have a "'valid excuse'" for doing so (Howlett, 496 US at 369, quoting Douglas v New York N.H. & H.R. Co., 279 US 377, 387-388 ). One permissible exception is when a state court lacks jurisdiction due to a "neutral state rule regarding the administration of the courts" (Howlett, 496 US at 372). The Supreme Court has explained that states "have great latitude to establish the structure and jurisdiction of their own courts" and that Congress must "take the state courts as it finds them" (id. [internal quotation marks omitted]; see also Brown v Gerdes, 321 US 178, 189  [Frankfurter, J., concurring] ["[t]he Constitution does not require New York to give jurisdiction to its courts against its will"]; National Private Truck Council Inc. v Oklahoma Tax Commn., 515 US 582, 587 n 4 ).
A corollary to this principle is that a state rule will be deemed "neutral" and "valid" if it does not discriminate against federal claims in favor of analogous state claims (see McKnett v St. Louis & San Francisco Ry. Co., 292 US 230, 233-234 ). In other words, if the same type of claim, "arising under state law, would be enforced in the state courts, the state courts are generally not free to refuse enforcement of the federal claim" (Martinez v California, 444 US at 283-284 n 7).
This issue became a rather hot topic in the statutory employment rights arena a few years ago when the Supreme Court found that the Eleventh Amendment prohibited suits in federal court brought by individuals against state employers under the ADA and the ADEA. The Court then held that Congress couldn't create a private right of action against state employers under the FLSA, enforceable in state courts. At the same time there's this tension with the Supremacy Clause and with the policies of § 1983 in particular, but other federal statutes as well.
One issue is what constitutes a similar claim, and that's been explored a bit by the Supreme Court (in Howlett v. Rose, for example). What hasn't been as thoroughly explored is what the states can do to channel those claims into specialized forums. And so, if the state requires all claims against state entities to be brought in the state court of claims, perhaps that would satisfy Howlett. It is less clear that requiring certain claims to be brought in a special court or administrative agency would satisfy the constitution, and having special agencies for state employee claims or for all employment discrimination claims is pretty prevalent. Additionally, if the Court affirms the state court here, that might open the door for states to create special courts for claims by state and local government employees against their employers. This case will help answer those questions.