Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy v. Stewart

PETITIONER: Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy
RESPONDENT: James W. Stewart III, Commissioner, Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, et al.
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia

DOCKET NO.: 09-529
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 563 US 247 (2011)
GRANTED: Jun 21, 2010
ARGUED: Dec 01, 2010
DECIDED: Apr 19, 2011

Earle Duncan Getchell Jr - on behalf of the respondents
E. Duncan Getchell, Jr. - Solicitor General of Virginia, for the respondents
Ginger D. Anders - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the petitioner
Seth M. Galanter - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

The Virginia Office of Protection and Advocacy ("VOPA"), a state agency dedicated to advocating on behalf of persons with disabilities, sued several Virginia state officials in their official capacities in a Virginia federal district court. VOPA alleged that the officials violated two federal statutes when the officials refused VOPA access to state records which VOPA argued it was entitled. The officials moved to dismiss the case arguing that they were immune to suit under the Eleventh Amendment.

On appeal the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, holding that the state officials were immune to suit under the Eleventh Amendment. The court reasoned that: (1) Congress did not abrogate state immunity under the statutes which VOPA sued under and (2) the mere receipt of federal funds by Virginia under the two statutes did not mean that the state had consented to suit. The court declined to extend the Eleventh Amendment exception established in Ex parte Young, where a private party may seek prospective injunctive relief against state officials, noting that VOPA was not a private party but rather a state agency.


Does the Eleventh Amendment categorically preclude an independent state agency from bringing an action in federal court against state officials for prospective injunctive relief to remedy a violation of federal law under the doctrine of Ex Parte Young?

Media for Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy v. Stewart

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 01, 2010 in Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy v. Stewart

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 19, 2011 in Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy v. Stewart

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Two federal statutes, the Development Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000 and the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act offer States federal money to improve services for individuals with developmental disabilities and mental illness.

As a condition of receiving that funding, a state must establish a protection and advocacy or a P&A system “to protect and advocate the rights” of those people.

A P&A system must have authority to investigate incidence of abuse and neglect to obtain all records relevant to such an investigation and to “pursue legal administrative another appropriate remedies or approaches to ensure the protection of” its charges.

Virginia is one just eight states to have designated a state agency as its P&A system, something federal law allows, provided the agency has certain structural features that ensure its independence from state government.

The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy or VOPA has those required features the Governor of Virginia appoints fewer than one-third of its governing board and Virginia law gives it freedom to litigate without oversight from the executive.

VOPA filed this lawsuit after two patients died and a third was injured in state-run mental hospitals.

The defendant's respondents here are state officials in charge of the relevant facilities.

The suit claims that VOPA has a federal right to obtain access to certain records relating to those patients and it seeks declaratory and injunctive relief commanding respondents to produce those records.

Respondents filed a motion to dismiss the action on Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity grounds.

But the District Court concluded that the suit was authorized by our decision in the case called Ex parte Young, which says that a suit for prospective relief against state officers for violation of federal law is not a suit against the state.

The Court of Appeals reversed.

It concluded that Ex parte Young did not apply to VOPA's suit because it is a contest between two state agencies, the adjudication of which in federal court would offend Virginia's sovereignty.

We granted certiorari and we now reverse.

The Eleventh Amendment confirms that states enter the union with their sovereign immunity intact.

That immunity protects the sovereign from being sued without its consent.

A State may waive its sovereign immunity at its pleasure.

And in some cases, Congress may abrogate it by appropriate legislation, but otherwise, federal courts may not entertain a private person suit against the State.

That case -- but in Ex parte Young, we adopted an important limit on state sovereign immunity.

That case established the principle, less delicately called a fiction that when a federal court commands a state official to do nothing more than refrain from violating federal law, that officer is not the state for sovereign immunity purposes.

We conclude that entertaining VOPA's action is consistent with that doctrine.

In Verizon Maryland Incorporated versus Public Service Commission of Maryland, we held that “In determining whether the doctrine of Ex parte Young avoids an Eleventh Amendment barred suit, a court need only to conduct a straightforward inquiry into whether the complaint seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.”

There is no doubt VOPA's suit satisfies that straightforward inquiry.

It alleges that respondent's refusal to produce the requested records violates federal law and it seeks a prospective injunction requiring the production of those records.

Although respondents contend that VOPA's status as a state agency alters the calculus.

There is no warrant in our cases for making the validity of Ex parte Young of an Ex parte Young action turned upon the identity of the plaintiff.

We have indeed made exceptions to Ex parte Young but only on the basis of “the effect of the relief sought.”

For example, where a suit seeks to compel a state officer to disperse funds from the state treasury, the effect of VOPA's requested relief concededly is permissible since even respondent's agree that that relief could be obtained by a private party.

Respondents contend that entertaining VOPA's lawsuit would nevertheless infringe Virginia's sovereign interest because it diminishes the dignity of a state to have a federal court adjudicate a dispute between its components.

We do not agree at the outset, we doubt that a state statute is -- that a state's stature is diminished to any greater degree when its own agency polices its officer's compliance with federal law than when a private person hails those officers into federal court for the same purpose.