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In order to determine whether a suit against a state agency is in reality a suit against the state, the court 'must examine the particular entity in question and its powers and characteristics as created by state law.
Plaintiffs Bobby Bland, David Dixon, Robert McCoy, John Sandhofer, and Debra Woodward were employed in the Hampton Sheriff's Office. Plaintiffs Bland and Woodward were unsworn, non-uniformed civilian employees while Plaintiffs Carter, Dixon, McCoy, and Sandhofer were all sworn, uniformed deputy sheriffs within the Office. The Sheriff of the Office, B.J. Roberts, defendant, was slated for re-election in November 2009. The plaintiffs claim that during his tenure, defendant used his authority to bolster his reelection efforts. Plaintiffs contend that in late 2009, defendant learned that a number of his employees were actively supporting one of his opponents in the election. Defendant won the election, and decided not to retain the six Plaintiffs as well as six other employees. Defendant claimed that he did not reappoint three civilian employees (including Plaintiffs Bland and Woodward) based on a reduction in the number of sworn deputies, and that he wanted to replace the civilian employees with sworn deputies. He also declined to retain the remaining four deputy Plaintiffs and five other deputies for unsatisfactory work performance or for his belief that their actions hindered the harmony and efficiency of the Office. Plaintiffs filed this suit against defendant in his individual and official capacities alleging that he violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association when he fired them. Defendant moved for summary judgment.
Was the defendant entitled to qualified immunity in his individual capacity and sovereign immunity in his official capacity?
The court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgement and dismissed plaintiff’s claims. The Court held that the defendant as a constitutional officer, the State then would be liable to pay adverse judgments won against the defendant in his official capacity. In other word, a suit against the defendant in his official capacity was in fact a suit against the State. The court further held that unless the State has abrogated or waived its immunity, the Eleventh Amendment protection applies. Since, there was no evidence of abrogation or consent to suit in this case. Consequently, the defendant was immune from suit for claims against him in that capacity. Therefore, even if the Court found that Plaintiffs had adequately stated First Amendment claims, defendant, in his official capacity, would still be immune from liability.