Earl Patterson was just doing his maintenance job, when Pennsylvania police detained him and questioned him about robbing a liquor store.
He didn't rob anybody; he worked for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. But a store employee said a "black guy" had tried to rob the store.
He sued for race discrimination in Patterson v. Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said the board was immune from liability.
The facts in the case were straightforward. Patterson was a longtime employee of the PLCB, and stopped at a board-run store to inquire about doing maintenance work.
He asked an assistant manager whether the electricity and plumbing were in working order, but the assistant manager became "very rude." En route to his next stop, police pulled him over about the reported "attempted robbery."
Patterson filed a federal complaint, but a trial judge dismissed. The appeals court affirmed, ruling the agency was entitled to sovereign immunity.
It was not that simple, however. The Third Circuit did a balancing test, and it tilted slightly in favor of the board.
On one hand, the appeals court said the state liquor code does not specifically provide state immunity from PLCB liability. The agency also has its own revenues to pay judgments against it, the court added.
However, statutory and case law say the PLCB is an arm of the state for immunity purposes. The judges said the agency was carrying out a state function, and "for this reason is clothed with immunity from suit."