EEOC Can Sue Public University, Court Rules

Federal appeals panel says 11th amendment immunity protects state institution from direct age bias suit by former employee -- but not from claim by U.S. agency on worker's behalf.
February 11, 2009

The Eleventh Amendment protects public universities from lawsuits by former employees under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act -- but it does not prevent the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from suing the colleges on the aggrieved employees' behalf, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit came in a case in which the EEOC sued the University of Louisiana System over alleged discrimination by the university's Monroe campus against a former administrator and professor, Van McGraw.

McGraw and another longtime official at Louisiana-Monroe, Dwight Vines, had, after retiring from their permanent administrative positions, worked on a series of annual contracts during the early 1990s. But when the university told them in 1996 that they would not be rehired because of a new policy that that prohibited the full-time re-employment of retirees, the two men filed a series of federal and state lawsuits, all of which were unsuccessful, the Fifth Circuit court said.

From 2002 to 2004, McGraw sought to be rehired as an associate dean or professor, also unsuccessfully, prompting him to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC and a state lawsuit against Louisiana-Monroe. The federal employment agency sued the university in 2005, alleging that it had violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act by denying him the positions either because of his age or out of retaliation for his previous lawsuits. The agency sought to win McGraw the position of his choice, back pay, and other compensation. Louisiana sought to have the case dismissed, saying it was protected from such suits by sovereign immunity guaranteed by the Eleventh Amendment.

It is "well established" that the Eleventh Amendment protects states from lawsuits by private individuals, the Fifth Circuit panel said in its decision Tuesday. But the court cites decisions in two other federal appeals courts -- including a 2002 case involving the University of Wisconsin System -- to assert that the Constitution does not in any way bar the federal government from suing a state (or one of its entities, like a public college) to enforce federal law.

The Fifth Circuit panel also rejects the university's argument that, as the court puts it, "the EEOC is circumventing the Eleventh Amendment to obtain personal relief for a party barred from suing ULM." Other courts, it writes, have rejected state entities' contentions that an EEOC lawsuit under the ADEA was merely a "private suit dressed in fancy clothes." And given that McGraw is barred by sovereign immunity from suing the university in federal court, the EEOC can proceed with its lawsuit against Louisiana-Monroe, the Fifth Circuit said.

A spokeswoman for the University of Louisiana System said its officials could not comment on the court's ruling because the litigation is continuing.


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