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Indiana's Child Services Is Immune From FLSA Suit

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on April 08, 2016 7:00 AM

In the recent case Martinez v. Indiana Dept. of Child Services, the Seventh Circuit upheld a long held doctrine in the law: sovereign powers cannot be sued in federal court unless there is an alleged violation of the state's constitution or the U.S. Constitution.

Alternatively, the state can consent to being sued, but how often does that happen?

Overtime and Child Services

Two workers at the Gary, Indiana Department of Child Services sued the agency for violations of the Federal Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), alleging that they had to work overtime and stay during lunch breaks even though they were paid only forty hours per week. They sought legal and equitable relief.

The Court's Take

The district court dismissed the employees' suit with prejudice because the FLSA was one of the federal acts that had been analyzed by SCOTUS with regard to Eleventh Amendment implications. In Alden v. Maine, SCOTUS felt that the FLSA did not abrogate the state's Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit, but that it did leave open states to waive their immunity if they chose to do so.

The circuit affirmed the lower district decision and barely had anything contrary to say. It noted that although exceptions to state immunity exist, the general rule prevailed that states enjoy immunity from suit in federal courts. The plaintiffs in this case had relied on a rarely applied third exception where states waive immunity. But that waiver is met only with a very high bar indeed.

The applicable rule derives from the case of Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, which states that the waiver must be "stated by the most express language or by such overwhelming implications from the text" as to leave no doubt. See Edelman v. Jordan. In other words, Indiana would have had to say, "Yes, we want to be sued," or the statutory law implicated would have had to be so obvious as to leave no option for alternatives.

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