11th Circ. Finds Tribe Immune To Ex-Worker’s Age Bias Suit
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Law360, New York (October 19, 2016, 3:56 PM EDT) — The Eleventh Circuit refused to revive an age discrimination suit brought by a former employee of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ health department, finding her arguments that the tribe is not shielded by sovereign immunity unpersuasive in a precedential ruling Tuesday.
A unanimous three-judge panel affirmed a district court’s dismissal of Christine Williams’ Age Discrimination in Employment Act suit against the Alabama tribe for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the grounds that the tribe is entitled to tribal sovereign immunity.
The panel said that there was “no evidence” that the tribe had waived its immunity to the suit, meaning the case turned on whether Williams could demonstrate that Congress abrogated the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity when enacting the ADEA.
To that point, Williams had argued that Congress intended to abrogate such immunity by pointing to the fact that Congress specified tribes on a list of employers exempted from suit under the Civil Rights Act but did not specify tribes on an otherwise similar list included in the ADEA.
To bolster her argument, Williams cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, which held that states could be sued under the Civil Rights Act after they were removed from the list of entities immune from the law.
But the panel found Williams’ argument unpersuasive for several reasons, including that the phrase “an Indian tribe” was never included in the ADEA’s list and she was therefore incorrect to assert that it had been “deleted” from the law.
Additionally, the silence of the legislative history and the statutory text of the ADEA on the matter of whether Congress intended it to apply to tribes is “ambiguous” and could just as easily be understood to mean that Congress never considered the law’s impact on tribes, the panel said.
Further, the panel said Williams misconstrued the “central issue” addressed in the high court’s Fitzpatrick ruling and that the decision cannot “be said to dictate a finding that Congress intended to abrogate tribal sovereign immunity under the ADEA by failing to exclude ‘an Indian tribe’ from the definition of those ‘employers’ that were required to comply with the ADEA.”
The panel also said one of the circuit court’s prior rulings foreclosed Williams’ attempt to duck the tribe’s sovereign immunity by emphasizing that the ADEA is a statute of general applicability. While the Poarch Band might generally be subject to the terms of the law, it is still protected by sovereign immunity under the statute, the panel said.
Mark H. Reeves of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, who represents the tribe, told Law360 in an email on Wednesday, “The Poarch Band is happy with the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion. The court properly applied the law, and its ruling is consistent with those previously issued by other federal appellate courts.”
Representatives for Williams did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
Williams, who has described herself as “over the age of 55,” was fired from her job as the lab manager of the tribe’s health department in June 2014 after 21 years of employment, according to court documents.
She claimed that she was fired due to her age rather than her job performance and filed the instant appeal after U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade tossed her suit seeking more than $2 million last summer.
Circuit Judges Ed Carnes and Adalberto Jordan and District Court Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr. sat on the panel.
Williams is represented by Robert L. Wiggins Jr., Candis A. McGowan and L. William Smith of Wiggins Childs Pantazis Fisher & Goldfarb.
The Poarch Band is represented by James C. Pennington and M. Tae Phillips of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC and and Mark H. Reeves of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP.
The case is Williams v. Poarch Band of Creek Indians, case number 15-13552, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
–Additional reporting by Andrew Westney, Caroline Simson and Jack Newsham. Editing by Jill Coffey.