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Sovereign Immunity Trumps Dental Assistant's ADA Claim

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 18, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There must be something in the fluoride in Alabama, because there are a lot of dental litigants in the Heart of Dixie.

We don't cover all of the dental lawsuits that make their way to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but what we've learned from the cases we've covered is that quasi-governmental health agencies get sovereign immunity.

The main issue in today's appeal was whether the Jefferson County Department of Health is a state agency entitled to sovereign immunity from a former employee's discrimination complaint.

The plaintiff, Sherry Ross, is a former dental assistant with the Department. Ross sued for discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) based on her alleged disability of fibromyalgia. She alleged that the Department approved her request to take medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but that the Department refused to make reasonable accommodations for her disability by denying her light duty.

She also claimed that she was fired for taking FMLA leave.

The district court ruled that the Department was entitled to sovereign immunity from Ross' complaint of disability discrimination and, alternatively, that Ross failed to request a reasonable accommodation for her disability. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Eleventh Amendment guarantees that non-consenting states cannot be sued by private individuals in federal court. The Eleventh Amendment protects the immunity of not only the states, but of state agencies and entities that function as an "arm of the state" -- Agencies and entities like the Jefferson County Department of Health.

It shouldn't come as a shock that the appellate court found that the Department was entitled to sovereign immunity: Alabama courts have uniformly treated county boards of health as state agencies, and the Department qualified under the circuit's four-part Manders v. Lee arm-of-the-state analysis.

Maybe dentists and county health departments have some kind of unusual pull over the appellate court. Maybe health departments and dental boards should be legitimately insulated from prosecution. Either way, think long and hard before suing a county agency or entity for employment discrimination; there's a good chance your claim won't survive summary judgment.

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