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Just Kidding: Ala. Dental Board Gets Sovereign Immunity After All

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 17, 2012 4:02 PM

The Alabama Board of Dental Examiners is entitled to qualified immunity according to a recent Alabama Supreme Court decision. That means that the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling last August — holding that the Board shouldn’t receive sovereign immunity — created a bit of awkwardness between the federal appellate court and the state’s highest court.

But everything’s better now. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated its prior finding in Versiglio v. Board of Dental Examiners of Alabama last week, and entered a new opinion.

So how did we get here, and what does it all mean?

Natalie Versiglio sued the Alabama Board of Dental Examiners under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Board claimed sovereign immunity, and moved to dismiss the case. Versiglio responded that the Board was sufficiently independent from the state of Alabama, and it was not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.

During its initial review of the case, the Eleventh Circuit relied on the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals' opinion in Wilkinson v. Board of Dental Examiners of Alabama, and concluded that the Board should not receive sovereign immunity.

Earlier this year, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the Court of Civil Appeals, holding that the Board is "an arm of the state" rather than a mere "franchisee licensed for some beneficial purpose," and that the Board is entitled to immunity.

Since the Eleventh Circuit gives deference to state courts when they interpret matters of state concern, the appellate court hopped on the sovereign immunity bandwagon.

This doesn't, however, mean that every board in the state will get sovereign immunity. The answer to whether a particular board receives sovereign immunity protection will still vary according to the Miccosukee four-part analysis and deference to the state's courts. The sovereign immunity finding simply means that boards that are similarly-situated with the Board of Dental Examiners are more likely to get sovereign immunity.

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