In Ross v. Jefferson County Department of Health, 2012 WL 5519095 (11th Cir. Nov.2012) Ross, a former dental assistant with the Jefferson County Health Department (the “health department”) filed a complaint of discrimination based on her alleged disability of fibromyalgia and based on her race. Ross alleged that the health department approved her request to take medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. §2612, but that the health department later refused her a reasonable accommodation when it denied her light duty and allegedly fired her for using leave under the Act. Ross further alleged that a similarly-situated dental assistant who is white was not terminated after exhausting her leave under the Act.
The health department moved for summary judgment arguing that it, as a state entity, enjoyed immunity under the Eleventh Amendment from Ross’ disability discrimination complaint. Alternatively, the health department argued that Ross had withdrawn her complaint of racial discrimination by admitting during her deposition that race was not related to her termination.
Ross argued that the health department is not immune from a complaint for monetary damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act because the health department serves as an agent of Jefferson County, instead of the State, in its performance of personnel functions.
The District Court disagreed and granted the health department’s motion for summary judgment holding that it was a state agency immune from Ross’ complaint. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision reasoning “the Eleventh Amendment protects the immunity of not only the state, but of the state agencies and entities that function as an arm of the state.” Whether an entity functions as an “arm of the state” is a federal question that the Eleventh Circuit resolves by reviewing how the state courts treat that entity. The Supreme Court of Alabama issued a decision that the Board of Dental Examiners “is in fact an arm of the state and is entitled to immunity from suits in Alabama state courts.” Versigliov Bd. of Dental Exam’rs of Ala., 686 F. 3d 1290, 1291 (11th Cir. 2012). The Eleventh Circuit went on to further explain that Alabama courts have uniformly treated county boards of health as state agencies.
The Eleventh Circuit further explained that the Court uses the following four factors to determine whether an entity is a state agent in carrying out a particular function in Eleventh Amendment cases: (1) how state law defines the entity; (2) what degree of control the state maintains over the entity; (3) where the entity derives its funds; and (4) who is responsible for judgments against the entity. Because Ross sued about her allegedly wrongful termination, the “function” at issue is the termination of employees, and state law establishes that the state controls that function.
As to the first factor, the Eleventh Circuit held that Alabama state statutory law assigns to county boards of health the exclusive authority to perform “public health work” that is subject to the “supervision and control of the State Board of Health.” Ala. Code §§22-1-3, 22-2-2(7), 22-3-1, and 22-3-4. As to the second factor, the state controls the personnel decisions within the health department, including terminations. The State Board of Health supervises and controls the county boards of health, each county officer, and all public health work. With respect to the third factor, the source of funding for the Health Department does not “tip the balance” against immunity because state law requires the county to supply those funds. Finally, regarding the fourth factor, although the health department is responsible for paying any monetary judgment out of its budget, Eleventh Circuit precedent holds that liability by the state treasury is not determinative of whether a governmental entity should enjoy Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Eleventh Circuit does not limit Eleventh Amendment immunity to “who foots the bill.”
Based on the foregoing, the Eleventh Circuit determined that the district court correctly granted summary judgment in favor of the health department and against Ross’ complaint of discrimination based on her disability because the health department is a state agency entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Specifically, the health department is immune from a complaint of employment discrimination under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Further, the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the lower court’s determination that Ross waived her Title VII race discrimination claim. Specifically, when asked during her deposition whether she “[felt] like [her] termination had anything to do [with] … [her] race,” Ross responded, “no.” Based on this unequivocal concession, the district court was entitled to grant summary judgment in favor of the health department.
Special thanks to Beth Liles with Sirote & Permutt for this summary.