11th Circuit Shoots Down Georgia School District’s Eleventh Amendment Defense in FMLA Case, Rules that District is Not an Arm of the State

On November 10, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed a decision by the U.S. District Court from Northern Georgia, which had granted summary judgment to Defendant Henry County School District in Lightfoot v. Henry County School District(“the District”). Plaintiff Zaneta Lightfoot suffers from Sickle Cell Anemia, which causes her to experience sporadic “pain crises” and difficulty standing or walking. In March 2010 she applied for intermittent FMLA leave, which she took during the 2010-2011 school year. She then applied for an additional period of intermittent FMLA leave.

During the time of her eligibility for leave, the Principal and two Vice Principals of the school met with Ms. Lightfoot to give her a “letter of redirection,” a disciplinary document in which she was accused of “fail[ing] to work cooperatively with co-workers” and “fail[ing] to provide five days of substitute lesson plans.” Lightfoot claims that during this meeting her three managers revealed that their true reason for issuing the letter was her use of FMLA leave, stating that her medical absences had caused many of the problems described in the letter. Then Lightfoot received an overall evaluation of “unsatisfactory” in her next performance evaluation, was placed on a Performance Development Plan (“PDP”), and removed from her (paid) position as the school’s cheerleading coach. One of her classes was moved to a distant classroom, which required her to take several painful walks across the school each day and, when she requested accommodation, which Principal Cook denied because she “did not appear to be in pain.”

She next received a second letter of redirection, on which she was accused of falsifying a student’s grades–a charge for which no evidence was ever provided to the Court–and then informed in March 2013 that her employment was terminated. She then initiated her lawsuit, until on September 17, 2013 the district court found that the School District was an “arm of the state” and thus entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity from actions within federal courts.

Ultimately, the 11th Circuit rejected the district court’s application of the four-part Manders test for determining whether an entity is immune from legal action under the Eleventh Amendment. The four factors for the court to weigh are 1) how state law defines the entity; 2) what degree of control the State maintains over the entity; 3) where the entity derives its funds; and 4) who is responsible for judgments against the entity. The appeals court found that the defendant in the present case failed all four tests, most importantly the first two. Regarding the first factor, the Appeals Court found that Georgia’s Constitution and laws generally define school districts as entities of their respective counties, and are either silent or equivocal on the question of whether they are parts of the state’s government. Regarding the second factor, the Court found that, while the State does retain certain powers, “Georgia’s school districts are largely under local control.” Regarding the third factor, unlike the cases relied on by the Defendant / Appellee, the Henry County School District had, in addition to state funding, substantial freedom to raise revenues through property taxes, bonds, and borrowing. Finally, regarding the fourth factor, it is not clear that the State of Georgia would be responsible for paying any fines, judgments, etc., and in any case the State’s financial responsibility is not a primary determinant of Eleventh Amendment immunity.

In the end, the Appeals Court reversed Georgia court’s grant of summary judgment on the ground of the state’s immunity under the Eleventh Amendment and remanded the case back to the district court.

If you believe your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Family and Medical Leave Act have been violated by your employer, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.