Court Decisions & Disability Issues Briefs
A project of the Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University

Lowe v. Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services

610 F.3d 321
Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
July 1, 2010

Facts of the Case

On January 20, 2000, Uneek Lowe (plaintiff-appellee) was hired by Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services (“HCJFS”) as a Medicaid eligibility technician.  Lowe has a history of depression and in 2002, she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”).  In May 2003 Lowe requested that HCJFS grant her reasonable accommodations for her disability.

On June 10, 2004, Lowe filed a charge of discrimination against HCJFS, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging race discrimination, disability discrimination and retaliation claims. On November 4, 2004, the EEOC issued Lowe a “right-to-sue” letter based on her complaint. On December 15, 2004, Lowe filed an additional charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging retaliation following her initial complaint.  Lowe commenced this action pro se in federal District Court on February 23, 2005, based on her initial EEOC complaint and the “right-to-sue” letter.  On June 3, 2005, the EEOC issued a second “right-to-sue” letter to Lowe, based on her second charge of discrimination.

On July 6, 2005, HCJFS terminated Lowe while she was out on one of several leaves pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  This termination came after an unfavorable performance review, two transfers (to similar positions), and a disciplinary proceeding, as well as two years of clashes between Lowe and her supervisors, and a general deterioration of Lowe’s working relationship with them. Following her termination, Lowe amended her complaint to include allegations regarding her termination and a number of additional claims. HCJFS filed a motion to dismiss, or alternatively a motion for summary judgment, arguing, in part that it was an arm of the State of Ohio, entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity on all of Lowe’s claims.

The District Court did grant HCJFS summary judgment on a number of Lowe’s complaints, but ultimately concluded that HCJFS was not entitled to sovereign immunity.  Additionally, they denied summary judgment on Lowe’s disability discrimination and retaliation claims. HCJFS appealed the District Court’s denial of summary judgment on the disability discrimination and retaliation claims. 

Issues of the Case

The issues before the Court on appeal are:

  1. Whether HCJFS is entitled to sovereign immunity and thus immune from trial and liability against a Title I claim under the ADA.
  2. Whether Lowe failed to exhaust administrative remedies before initiating a lawsuit.
  3. Whether the District Court erred in finding that Lowe was qualified for her position in its determination that she had established a prima facie case of disability discrimination.

Arguments & Analysis

1. Proper Jurisdiction Under Collateral Order to Review the Issues

The Court first noted that it was proper to review only the issue of sovereign immunity in the case at hand.  The Court declined to exercise jurisdiction over the second two issues.

2. Sovereign Immunity is Proper for a State but not for a Political Subdivision

If an agency is considered an arm of the state, it is immune from a suit brought against it by a citizen under Title I of the ADA.  In this case, the issue is whether HCJFS is categorized as an arm of the state or as a political subdivision.  Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that prevents the government from being sued.  In order to determine whether HCJFS an arm of the state and thus entitled to sovereign immunity, the Court uses the following four factors:

  1. The State of Ohio’s potential legal liability for a judgment against HCJFS;
  2. The language state courts and statutes use to describe HCJFS and the degree of control the state has over HCJFS;
  3. Whether state or local officials appoint HCJFS board members;
  4. Whether HCJFS’s functions fall under the purview of state or local government.

The Sixth Circuit previously decided that “[T]he entity asserting Eleventh Amendment immunity has the burden to show that it is entitled to immunity, i.e., that it is an arm of the state.” Gragg v. Ky. Cabinet for Workforce Dev., 289 F.3d 958, 963 (6th Cir.2002).

In the first factor of the test, HCJFS attempted to meet the burden of showing that the State of Ohio was potentially legally liable for a judgment against HCJFS.  HCJFS argued that although it would pay any damages to Lowe, the state would reimburse the damages since Lowe’s wages were funded through a state and federal reimbursement system.  In response, the Court cited a Supreme Court decision in Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425 (1997), holding that the important issue is a state’s legal liability and not the availability of a third party “to indemnify the agency.”  Under HCJFS’s reimbursement theory, the State of Ohio would not be legally liable even if they did reimburse the costs owed to Lowe, since any judgment would be enforceable only against HCJFS.   Furthermore, HCJFS did not demonstrate that the state actually would reimburse costs.  This factor weighed against HCJFS.

The second factor in determining whether HCJFS is an arm of the state looks at the treatment of HCJFS by courts and statutes and state control.  HCJFS argued that because Lowe’s responsibilities dealt with state and federal statutes and regulation, this factor should weigh in its favor.  However, the Court found that HCJFS failed to show how those facts translated into state control over HCJFS.  The county controlled the time and place of Lowe’s work, and Ohio statutes and case law treat job and family services as local entities.  Ohio state law describes entities like HJCFS as part of county government, which the Court finds renders them “quintessentially local bodies, not entitled to sovereign immunity almost by definition.”  The Court concluded that because the state of Ohio treats HCJFS and similar entities as local bodies rather than arms of the state, and because local authority is exerted over HCJFS, this factor weighs against HCJFS.

The third factor in determining whether HCJFS should be considered an arm of the state is whether board members are appointed by state or local officials.  The Court addressed this in the evaluation of the preceding factor.  Ohio state law requires that Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners appoint the HCJFS director.  Again, this factor weighs against HCJFS.

The final factor to be weighed is whether the functions of HCJFS fall under the traditional purview of state or local government.  The court conceded that HCJFS serves the function of administering state and federal programs, but it does so at a local level.  HCJFS argued that because no state-wide system exists for administering these services, it acts as an arm of the state.  However, the court reasoned that this very fact demonstrates that Ohio treats the program as a local function.  Although Lowe’s specific job dealt with the administration of state and federal benefits, HCJFS served other functions including child care, child protection services, and workforce development.  The Court decided that HCJFS’s functions could not neatly be categorized as either within the traditional purview of state or local government, but because its programs were designed to serve a local community, it weighed in favor of a local entity.

More importantly, because the other three factors weighed so heavily against HCJFS as being categorized as an arm of the state, it fails the four factor test.  It is properly categorized as a political subdivision and not entitled to political sovereignty.

Rulings

The court held that HCJFS did not meet the burden of showing that it is entitled to sovereign immunity because it is a political subdivision of the state.  Thus, Lowe is permitted to bring her Title I claim under the ADA for disability discrimination as well as her retaliation claim. 

Policy and Practice

Political Subdivisions’ Are Covered Under ADA Title I

In Lowe, the issue at hand is establishing the proper classification of Hamilton County Department of Job & Family Services as either a political subdivision or as an arm of the state; political subdivisions are not entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, whereas entities that are considered arms of the state are entitled to sovereign immunity. 
It was concluded that HCJFS is properly classified as a political subdivision and therefore a disability discrimination claim, such as Lowe’s, that arises under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, can be brought against a governmental entity that has not meet the burden of showing that it is entitled to sovereign immunity.

Links 

Disclaimer:

These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time.  In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.

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