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Virginia Office of Protection and Advocacy v. Reinhard

568 F.3d 110 (4th Cir. 2009), cert. granted, 78 U.S.L.W. 3743 (June 21, 2010) (No. 09-529)

Does the 11th Amendment categorically preclude an independent state agency from bringing an action in federal court against state officials for prospective injunctive relief to remedy a violation of federal law under the doctrine of Ex parte Young?

In this case, the issue before the court is whether independent state agencies may sue state officials in federal court for injunctive relief to remedy a violation of federal law. The court will review a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that these suits are barred by sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment.

The petitioner, the Virginia Office of Protection and Advocacy (VOPA), is a protection and advocacy program (P&A) housed in the Virginia state government and part of a nationwide system created by Congress to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Under the P&A system, each state receives federal funds in exchange for establishing a P&A, either as a state agency or as a private nonprofit, charged with investigating abuse and neglect in institutions and enforcing civil rights statutes on behalf of persons with disabilities. Virginia, like seven other states, elected to establish its P&A as an independent state agency, while the remaining states have designated private nonprofits to be the P&A.

The underlying suit arose from a dispute between VOPA and Virginia state officials over the release of medical records from two state institutions. VOPA requested the records after initiating an investigation of three deaths and injuries to residents in state custody. When state officials refused to release the records, VOPA sued the officials in federal court, requesting an injunction for release of the records and a declaration that the officials' failure to do so violated federal law. The officials argued that they were protected by sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment and moved to dismiss the suit.

Relying on Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), a century-old Supreme Court case, the District Court denied the motion to dismiss. In Ex parte Young, the court created an exception to sovereign immunity for suits against state officials requesting prospective injunctive relief for violations of federal law. The underlying fiction is that in violating federal law, the officials are no longer legal representatives of the state, and thus they can no longer be protected by state immunity. The Ex parte Young doctrine has traditionally required only three elements: 1) a suit against a state official; 2) for prospective injunctive relief; 3) to remedy a violation of federal law. Applying this test, the District Court found that the VOPA suit fell under the Ex parte Young exception, and declined to grant the state a dismissal.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the court ruling. Departing from Supreme Court precedent and the decisions of other circuits, the Circuit Court introduced a new requirement for Ex parte Young to apply: the plaintiff must be a private party, not a state agency. The court held that to allow otherwise would infringe on the "special sovereignty interests" of the states, and impermissibly allow federal courts to preside over "intramural contests" between state subdivisions. Thus, the court narrowed the scope of Ex parte Young, making it unavailable to independent state agencies such as VOPA. As a result, the Court of Appeals ruled that VOPA's suit should be dismissed.

This interpretation of Ex parte Young conflicts with the views of other circuit courts and the United States. Earlier this year, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Ex parte Young applies to suits by state P&As, noting that states cannot be allowed to shield their institutions from oversight by designating their P&As as state entities rather than private nonprofits. Similarly, the solicitor general argued in its brief recommending that the court grant certiorari that because Virginia voluntarily designated VOPA as a state entity — and accepts federal funds in exchange for empowering the program to enforce federal rules and policies against its institutions — VOPA's suit does not infringe on any "special sovereignty interests."

AARP, with the National Senior Citizens Law Center, filed an amicus curiae brief, arguing that the court should make Ex parte Young available to state agency P&As. The brief focused on the importance of P&As to the protection of older persons — in their investigatory and enforcement capacities — and emphasized the crucial role that access to federal courts plays in their work.

This case is of great importance to older people and to vulnerable people in general. Roughly 20 percent of all people represented or assisted by the P&A network are 65 and older. In addition, P&A systems frequently partner with public interest organizations such as AARP attorneys by providing valuable investigatory expertise to litigation initiatives that vindicate the rights of older persons. Finally, it is crucial to uphold the Ex parte Young exception to state sovereign immunity, as the doctrine is essential to litigation that protects the interests of older persons in various safety net programs. Many federal statutes create safety net programs administered by state officials such as Medicaid, food stamps, Older Americans Act programs, etc. The Ex parte Young doctrine allows citizens in a state to sue their own officials to enforce these and other federal statutes in federal courts, which are frequently the ideal forum to pursue violations of federal law.

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