Court denies Eleventh Amendment immunity to sheriff's office

By Tomas Kassahun | Jan 1, 2019

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has ruled that the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity when conducting child-protective investigations.   pexels.com

ATLANTA — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has ruled that the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity when conducting child-protective investigations.

According to the ruling on Dec. 14, the sheriff's office (HCSO) isn’t entitled to Eleventh Amendment Immunity because it’s not an arm of the state.

The Eleventh Amendment, cited by the appeals court, restricts individuals from bringing lawsuits against states in federal court.

In this case, the appeals court said Doris Freyre brought the lawsuit against HCSO, which took Freyre’s disabled child after responding to allegations of child abuse.

According to the opinion, the Department of Children and Families first received a call on its abuse hotline in 2011, alleging Freyre had neglected her disabled child.

HCSO, through child protective investigators Jessica Pietrzak and Iris Valdez and under Sheriff David Gee’s supervision, conducted an investigation that ended in the removal of the child from Freyre’s care, the opinion stated.

The appeals court said Freyre had filed the lawsuit against HCSO and other individuals associated with the removal and transfer of her child, asserting claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and for infringement of her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. 

“The District Court correctly denied HCSO summary judgment on its sovereign immunity defense, the only issue we review in this interlocutory appeal,” the opinion stated. “We accordingly affirm the district court’s judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.” 

According to the opinion, the court uses a four-factor test to determine whether an entity is an arm of the state and if it’s entitled to sovereign immunity. 

The appeals court said the factors are: how state law defines the entity, what degree of control the state maintains over the entity, where the entity derives its funds and who is responsible for judgments against the entity.

“Our question is not simply whether HCSO acts as an arm of the state generally, but whether it does so when performing child-protective investigations under the Grant Agreement with DCF,” the appeals court added.

Looking at how state law defines the entity, the appeals court analyzed state law concerning the status of the entity generally and state law concerning the specific function the entity performs in the instant case. 

The appeals court then determined that the first factor weighs against arm-of-the-state status. 

The appeals court said the second factor requires the court to look at the degree of control the state exercises over the entity generally as well as with respect to the specific function at issue. 

“Considering both the autonomy that the Grant Agreement affords HCSO and the control the state exerts through state-set standards and reporting requirements, we conclude that this factor is neutral,” the opinion stated.

The appeals court added that the third factor weighs in favor of arm-of-the-state status. 

“Although Florida sheriff’s offices are generally funded entirely by county taxes, DCF provides all funding for child-protective investigations and Freyre does not contest this,” the opinion stated.  

In regards to whether the state treasury would be burdened by a judgment against HCSO in this matter, the appeals court said “a judgment against HCSO would not be satisfied with state funds and that this factor weighs against arm-of-the-state status.” 

The appeals court concluded that “HCSO does not act as an arm of the state when conducting child-protective investigations pursuant to the specific Grant Agreement between HCSO and DCF.”

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