Employment-Eighth Circuit Holds That Eleventh Amendment Bars Suit Against the State of Iowa For An FMLA Violation

In Quinnett v. State of Iowa, No. 10-2870 (8th Cir. 2011), the plaintiff had brought suit against the State of Iowa, the Iowa Department of Administrative Services (the “DAS”), and two officials of the DAS, alleging violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”).

The plaintiff is a former employee of the DAS. He suffered from various medical problems during his emplyment with the DAS. He took leave from work under the FMLA to take care of these problems, under the FMLA’s leave entitlement provisions to care for serious health conditions (the FMLA’s “self-care provision”). The plaintiff alleges that the defendants eventually asked him to apply for long-term disability benefits rather than take more FMLA leave, and then terminated him while claiming that he had resigned. The plaintiff then brought this suit against the defendants, alleging that they had interfered with his FMLA leave and retaliated against him for exercising his rights under the FMLA. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the Eleventh Amendment barred the plaintiff’s FMLA claims against all of the defendants, and the plaintiff appealed. The question for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”): did the State of Iowa waive its Eleventh Amendment immunity with respect to suits brought under the FMLA’s self-care provision?

In analyzing the case, the Court said that the Eleventh Amendment confirms that States entered the Union with their sovereign immunity intact, and thus may not be sued in federal court without their consent (unless Congress has validly abrogated the immunity). A State may waive the immunity by making a clear declaration that it intends to submit itself to the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Here, the State made FMLA leave available to employees. However, nothing in the state regulations, a DAS “Benefit Guide,” or the DAS benefits website clearly declares the State’s intent to submit itself to federal-court jurisdiction on FMLA matters. The Court noted that the DAS benefits website, in its section on the FMLA, does state that “[e]mployees may also bring a private civil action against an employer for violations,” but it does not specify that such an action may be brought in federal court. The Court said that a State does not consent to suit in federal court “by stating its intention to sue and be sued or even by authorizing suits against it in any court of competent jurisdiction.” As such, the Court ruled that the Eleventh Amendment bars the plaintiff’s suit and affirmed the district court’s decision.