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Wrongful Termination Lawsuit Hangs by Eleventh Amendment Thread

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 24, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Judges are usually deciding outcomes in the wrongful termination cases we review; but today, we have a judge who is the defendant in a federal wrongful termination lawsuit.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will soon determine if the lawsuit is barred by the Eleventh Amendment.

Lynn Helbing worked as the secretary for the presiding judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit for the State of Missouri for over 20 years without incident or discipline; when Circuit Judge Rachel Bringer was appointed as presiding judge, that changed.

Helbing claims that Judge Bringer repeatedly berated and criticized her, and falsely accused her of misconduct, ultimately making Helbing physically ill. Helbing took Family and Medical Leave Act leave on February 15, 2011, due to the deterioration of her physical and mental health. On May 27, 2011, Judge Bringer fired Helbing without written notice.

The written notice element is critical as it forms the basis for Helbing's wrongful termination lawsuit against Judge Bringer.

Missouri Circuit Courts - not to be confused with federal circuit courts - mandate that employees can be dismissed "only for just cause," and that when an employee is dismissed, the appointing authority must provide the employee "with written notice advising the employee of the intent to dismiss, the effective date of the dismissal, the reasons for the dismissal, and the employee's right to appeal." The effective date of the dismissal must be at least five working days from the date of the written notice.

Helbing claims that Judge Bringer denied her due process rights because she didn't meet the Missouri court dismissal notice requirement. The district court granted summary judgment for Judge Bringer, finding that the Eleventh Amendment bars Helbing, a private party, from bringing an action for damages against an unconsenting state in federal court. Helbing is appealing to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate court outcome will turn on whether Helbing can persuade the court that she is suing Judge Bringer as an individual, not in her official capacity. That may be difficult because one of Helbing's court memos states that Judge Bringer was acting in her official capacity when she fired Helbing.

Helbing's attorney says the case is "less about money that it is about reputation," reports the Hannibal Courier-Post; while that may be true, courts do not dole out awards of reputation. We expect that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will agree with the district court on the Eleventh Amendment conflict issue, and uphold the summary judgment ruling dismissing Helbing's wrongful termination lawsuit.

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