High court reaffirms rights of Protection and Advocacy organizations

This photograph depicts six columns of the U.S. Supreme Court building looking straight up from the ground.
The columns of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

The Supreme Court ruled April 19 that states are not protected by sovereign immunity from lawsuits filed in federal courts from other state agencies, such as Virginia’s federally funded agency for protecting and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, alleging violations of federal law.

The case stems from a 2007 lawsuit filed by the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy after the state of Virginia refused to hand over medical records during an investigation into two deaths at state-run hospitals.

The state argued that VOPA is barred from suing it in federal court because the State of Virginia has sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment, which protects states from lawsuits in federal court by other states and countries. Further, the state argued the lawsuit did not fall under an exception to the 11th Amendment known as Ex parte Young, which allows federal courts to hear lawsuits seeking to require state officials to follow federal law.

Under federal law, every state which accepts certain federal funds must also designate a Protection and Advocacy organization. In most states, the Protection and Advocacy organization is a private nonprofit, but in eight states, including Virginia, it is a state agency.

The district court sided with VOPA, stating it could sue under Ex parte Young, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the decision.

Writing for the 6-2 majority, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected Virginia’s argument that there is a distinction between a state agency and other organizations, or individuals, for the purposes of the case. He also rejected the concerns of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito in the dissent, who argued that the state’ dignity would be diminished by a federal court handling disputes between state agencies.

“We do not understand how a State’s stature could be diminished to any greater degree when its own agency policies its officers’ compliance with their federal obligations, than when a private person hales those officers into federal court for that same purposes – something everyone agrees is proper,” Scalia wrote in the opinion.

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case.

Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, an entity that represents the interests of Protection and Advocacy agencies nationwide, said the decision will allow Protection and Advocacy groups to fulfill their obligations on behalf of individuals with disabilities.

“The Supreme Court’s opinion maintains in the strongest way possible our ability to protect the rights of people with disabilities,” he said in a news release. “It’s a relief that this challenge to our mandate to vigorously and thoroughly investigate abuse and neglect in state institutions is over.”