Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Does a community college stand in the shoes of the state for the purposes of Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit?
In its opinion in Leitner v. Westchester Community College, a panel of the Second Circuit answered in the negative.
The court found that although Westchester Community College (WCC) is part of the state university system of New York (SUNY) that is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, the community college is not similarly shielded. Essentially, the question is whether the community college is more like the state or more like a local government ("community") which is not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. The court's rationale focused on the factor of the risk to the state treasury, finding it important that the state only contributes a fraction of WCC's budget, is not responsible for WCC's debts, and it is Westchester County that has the power to issue bonds and levy taxes to support WCC. The court also considered the issue of state control. There are ten board members of WCC: the state Governor appointed four, while the county appointed five, with one board member elected by the student body. Further, the court considered the laws creating WCC, finding the statutory framework indicates its separation from SUNY.
The opinion seems straightforward even as it is acknowledges the curvatures of the landscape on which it is written.
First, district courts have found that other SUNY community colleges are embraced by SUNY's sovereign immunity and the Second Circuit itself has found that the City University of New York is similarly entitled to sovereign immunity (even as the City of New York is not).
Second, the court notes that other circuits examining the question whether a particular stateʹs community colleges are entitled to sovereign immunity have "unsurprisingly" reached disparate conclusions, given that the conclusions are based on state-specific inquiries into those collegesʹ fiscal and governance structures.
Thus, having concluded that WCC is not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, Carol Leitner's claim for a First Amendment violation can proceed directly against the community college, in addition to the WCC officials who are also defendants.