Fourth Circuit Considers Immunity Issues in Discrimination Suit

Fourth Circuit Considers Immunity Issues in Discrimination Suit

 by Allison B. Williams

Recently, in the matter of McCray v. Maryland Dept. of Transportation [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to subscribers], the Fourth Circuit had the opportunity to consider whether sovereign immunity or legislative immunity applied to a discrimination case filed by an employee of the Maryland Department of Transportation.  Plaintiff, Ms. McCray, filed a discrimination suit pursuant to the ADEA, ADA, and Title VII in which she alleged she was fired from her job as a transit worker for discriminatory reasons.  Ms. McCray’s position was eliminated by the Legislature with 802 other positions due to necessary budget cuts. 

The employer moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint on the basis that it was immune from suit because McCray’s position was cut due to a state budget decision, and legislative immunity blocked the lawsuit.  The lower court agreed and dismissed the suit.  Plaintiff appealed to the Fourth Circuit. 

During the appeal, the employer not only advanced its position that it was immune from suit because of legislative immunity, but it also asserted that it was immune from suit under the doctrine of sovereign immunity.  Sovereign immunity protects states from suit in federal court brought by their citizens unless the state (or state agency) consents or the immunity has otherwise been abrogated.  The Court agreed that Plaintiff’s ADEA claim and ADA claim could not proceed because of the protections afforded to the State under the 11th Amendment of the Constitution. The Court disagreed, however, with the State and the lower court’s finding that legislative immunity precluded Plaintiff’s discrimination suit from proceeding.  The Court found that Plaintiff had alleged discriminatory conduct by her supervisor prior to the final act of cutting her job through the budget.  These supposed prior acts were enough to keep Plaintiff’s claim afloat, at least through the discovery phase of the case. 

This case is important for State Agency employers for a couple reasons.  First, should a plaintiff file a civil lawsuit in federal court as provided by the ADEA or the ADA, the employer will have a solid basis to convince a court to dismiss the lawsuit.  Second, should an employer make budgetary decisions to cut positions within the organization (as directed by the legislature), it too should be protected — unless, there is evidence or allegations of discrimination leading up to the decision to cut the position.

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