Sovereign immunity barred claims in dispute over university meal plan
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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Sovereign immunity barred claims in dispute over university meal plan

By Elizabeth C. Pope, J.D.

Under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, a pro se plaintiff could not pursue federal antitrust claims against the University of Georgia’s Board of Regents for what he viewed as the Board’s wrongful decision to charge him for a university meal plan program when he wanted to opt out of the meal plan program. A district court did not err when it concluded that the Board was an arm of the state of Georgia and therefore entitled to sovereign immunity. The Eleventh Amendment prohibited federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over lawsuits against a state, except where the state had waived its immunity or Congress had overridden it. Further, under the state action immunity doctrine, states are immune from federal antitrust law for their actions as sovereign. Thus the Board’s actions were "outside the ambit" of the plaintiff’s Sherman Act and Clayton Act claims (Nicholl v. Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, August 7, 2017, per curiam).

State contract law claims and Georgia and U.S. Constitutional claims were similarly barred, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta. With respect to the plaintiff’s contract claim, the court explained that while Georgia has waived its immunity from contract actions in state court, it has not waived its immunity from suit in federal court for contract claims.

Sovereign immunity also defeated the plaintiff’s constitutional claims. In order to avoid Eleventh Amendment immunity for the alleged deprivation of his civil liberties, the plaintiff needed to seek injunctive relief against a state official in his or her official capacity and not against the Board, which is an arm of the state. Under the Supreme Court’s holding in Ex Parte Young, a suit alleging constitutional violations against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the state.

Leave to amend. The lower court did not err by denying the plaintiff’s motion to amend his suit, as amendment would have been futile. Even if the plaintiff amended the complaint to name state officials under the Ex Parte Young exception, he still would have been required to offer factual content permitting a court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant was liable for the alleged misconduct.

The case is No. 16-17739.

Attorneys: Ryan Patrick Nicholl, pro se. Brooke Erin Heinz, Attorney General's Office, for Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.

Companies: Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia

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