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Blais v. State

United States District Court, D. Maine

June 20, 2019




         Plaintiff, Christine M. Blais, brings this action against the Defendant, State of Maine, seeking to challenge the constitutionality of 39-A M.R.S. § 221(3)(A), as it was amended by L.D. 949. Compl. (ECF No. 1). The matter is before me on the State of Maine's motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Mot. Dismiss (ECF No. 10).


         Plaintiff, proceeding in forma pauperis, asserts that a law passed in 2013, L.D. 949, “was written in an unequal and discriminating manner” which, she avers, “violates the United States Constitution's guarantee of ‘Equal Protection and Justice under the law.'”[1] Compl., 3. As a result of the passage of L.D. 949, Plaintiff's weekly workers' compensation benefits have been reduced and she seeks reimbursement of the benefits denied to her as well as an order reinstating her original weekly benefit amount. Id. As clarified in her Response, (ECF No. 12, #47), the crux of her argument is that her equal protection and due process rights have been violated - a claim which is traditionally asserted through 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Cruz-Erazo v. Rivera-Montanez, 212 F.3d 617, 621 (1st Cir. 2000) (“[Section] 1983 … provides a cause of action by which individuals may seek [relief] for governmental violations of rights protected by federal law.”).

         Defendant seeks dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on sovereign immunity grounds. Mot. Dismiss, 3. A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “raises the fundamental question whether the federal district court has subject matter jurisdiction over the action before it.” United States v. Lahey Clinic Hosp., Inc., 399 F.3d 1, 8 n.6 (1st Cir. 2005) (citation and quotation marks omitted). As a general rule, “courts must adjudicate plausible challenges to their jurisdiction prior to adjudicating the merits of a case.” Brait Builders Corp. v. Massachusetts, Div. of Capital Asset Mgmt., 644 F.3d 5, 10 (1st Cir. 2011). Because sovereign immunity is “a limitation on the federal court's judicial power, ” I will not address the substance of Plaintiff's case and will instead consider Defendant's assertion of sovereign immunity. Calderon v. Ashmus, 523 U.S. 740, 745 n.2 (1998).

         The doctrine of sovereign immunity is grounded in the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Eleventh Amendment. Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 728-29 (1999) (“The Eleventh Amendment confirmed, rather than established, sovereign immunity as a constitutional principle.”). Under the principle of sovereign immunity, unless a state affirmatively waives Eleventh Amendment protections and consents to suit in federal court, it is “immune from suit brought by a private party, regardless of the nature of the relief sought.” DeCotiis v. Whittemore, 842 F.Supp.2d 354, 364 (D. Me. 2012); see also Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 99-100 (1984). To be clear - this immunity insulates a state from suit in federal court “on any claim, whether based in federal or state law.” Walker v. Nichols, No. 1:13-CV-00259-GZS, 2013 WL 6018614, at *3 (D. Me. Nov. 13, 2013). It also protects a state from a suit filed in federal court by one of its own citizens. Lapides v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Georgia, 535 U.S. 613, 616 (2002) (“The Eleventh Amendment grants a State immunity from suit in federal court by citizens of other States, and by its own citizens as well.” (internal citations omitted)).

         The named defendant in this case, the State of Maine, is unquestionably entitled to assert the Eleventh Amendment's bar against federal court proceedings.[2] Furthermore, as the State asserts, and the Plaintiff does not contest, the State of Maine has not waived its entitlement to sovereign immunity. Eleventh Amendment immunity can be waived in three narrow circumstances: “(1) by a clear declaration that it intends to submit itself to the jurisdiction of a federal court or administrative proceeding, (2) by consent to or participation in a federal program for which waiver of immunity is an express condition, or (3) by affirmative conduct in litigation.” New Hampshire v. Ramsey, 366 F.3d 1, 15 (1st Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted). The State of Maine has not affirmatively consented - whether by clear declaration or by participation in a program requiring waiver - to suit in federal court for claims arising from alleged violations of an individual's federally-protected constitutional rights.[3] See 5 M.R.S. § 4682; 14 M.R.S. § 8118. This refusal to waive sovereign immunity[4] or submit to the jurisdiction of this court has been reaffirmed by the State's litigation conduct: the State filed this motion explicitly asserting its sovereign immunity and contesting jurisdiction. See Ramos-Pinero v. Puerto Rico, 453 F.3d 48, 52 (1st Cir. 2006) (concluding that “[f]iling a motion to dismiss that specifically asserts Eleventh Amendment immunity” can hardly be viewed as an act that “evince[s] a clear choice to submit [the state's] rights for adjudication by the federal courts” (citation and quotation marks omitted)).


         While I am sympathetic to the hardship this change in legislation has wrought on Plaintiff, absent an appropriate claim involving deprivation of a federal right asserted against an appropriate defendant, my role is necessarily limited. As commented by the Seventh Circuit:

It is not [a] court's function to decide what the law ought to be, but rather to construe and apply the law as the legislature has enacted it . . . . It is the role of the legislature to evaluate the public policy considerations regarding the wisdom of a statute, just as it is its role to cure unfairness of a statute, if any.

Lexington Ins. Co. v. Rugg & Knopp, Inc., 165 F.3d 1087, 1093 (7th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).

         I, therefore, GRANT Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 10) and dismiss the claim against the State of Maine for lack of jurisdiction.[5]

         So ...

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