Della Grotta v. State of R.I., 85-1214

Decision Date17 January 1986
Docket NumberNo. 85-1214,85-1214
Citation781 F.2d 343
Parties, 5 Fed.R.Serv.3d 807 Anthony DELLA GROTTA, Plaintiff, Appellee, v. STATE OF RHODE ISLAND, Defendant, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Elizabeth A. Del Padre, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., with whom Arlene Violet, Atty. Gen., was on brief for appellant.

Thomas C. Plunkett with whom Leonard A. Kiernan, Jr. was on brief for appellee.

Before CAMPBELL, Chief Judge, BREYER, Circuit Judge, and CEREZO, * District Judge.


The State of Rhode Island appeals from a jury verdict in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island awarding plaintiff Anthony Della Grotta $14,000 against the State for alleged deprivation of his civil rights. We hold that the State has waived its eleventh amendment immunity and is otherwise a suable "person" within 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. Because there was lacking any evidence that any deprivation of Della Grotta's civil rights was caused by a "policy or custom" of the State, however, we also hold that the district court should have allowed the State's motion for a new trial.


On July 19, 1983, plaintiff Anthony Della Grotta, then 18 years old, went to Goddard Park in Warwick, Rhode Island, to go scuba diving. The park is owned by the State of Rhode Island, and is served by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Park Police. On July 19, 1983, the supervising park police officer was Richard E. Coons, one of the defendants in the trial below.

When he arrived at Goddard Park, Della Grotta saw that Lisa Meddaugh, a former girlfriend, was working on a lemonade truck. Della Grotta boarded the truck, put his hand on Meddaugh's shoulder, and asked her for a date. Meddaugh asked him to leave, saying she was busy with customers. Della Grotta promptly stepped down off the truck and walked over to the beach to scuba dive.

Soon thereafter, Meddaugh noticed that $40 was missing from her cash box. She went to the park police office and filed a complaint with Officer Coons that suggested Della Grotta might have taken the money. On the basis of this complaint, Coons dispatched two officers to bring Della Grotta to the park police office for questioning. Della Grotta came peacefully. At the time he had in his possession only 11 cents, and a search of his car pursuant to his written consent failed to turn up the missing $40. Officer Coons testified at trial that on the basis of this evidence, as well as the fact that Della Grotta "was making sense" in his protestations that he was not involved in any theft, it was soon apparent that Della Grotta was not responsible for the disappearance of the money. Nevertheless, Della Grotta was detained at the police station for several hours, and upon his release, was given a summons for disorderly conduct. Coons conceded at trial that, in fact, Della Grotta had not at any time acted in a manner that could reasonably be characterized as "disorderly."

On July 27, two days prior to Della Grotta's scheduled arraignment on the disorderly conduct charge, Meddaugh advised Officer Coons that she wished to withdraw her complaint against Della Grotta. Della Grotta was not informed about this action. Therefore, he went to court on July 29 expecting to face a disorderly conduct charge. Just before entering the courtroom, however, he was informed by Officer Coons that a charge of assault was being substituted for the disorderly conduct charge.

At the actual arraignment, Meddaugh appeared and formally withdrew her complaint, and all charges against Della Grotta were dismissed.

Based on the foregoing facts, Della Grotta brought an action against Officer Coons and the State of Rhode Island pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, alleging violation of his constitutional rights to be free from false arrest, false imprisonment, false charges, and illegal searches. The case was tried before a jury for two-and-a-half days. At the close of all the evidence, neither defendant moved for a directed verdict. The jury returned a verdict of $10,000 in compensatory damages and $2,000 in punitive damages against Officer Coons, and $14,000 in compensatory damages against the State of Rhode Island. Defendants' motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial were denied. The State alone now appeals to this court. 1


Rhode Island argues that the eleventh amendment prevents its being sued. Although not raised below, this contention can be pursued here since the eleventh amendment is a jurisdictional bar to suits against states and may be raised on appeal for the first time. See Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 98, 104 S.Ct. 900, 907, 79 L.Ed.2d 67 (1984); Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 678, 94 S.Ct. 1347, 1363, 39 L.Ed.2d 662 (1974); Ford Motor Company v. Department of Treasury, 323 U.S. 459, 466-67, 65 S.Ct. 347, 351-52, 89 L.Ed. 389 (1945). But see Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. ----, ----, 105 S.Ct. 3142, 3150-52, 87 L.Ed.2d 171 (1985) (Brennan, J., dissenting).

The eleventh amendment would normally be an absolute defense for Rhode Island to this action. However, appellee insists that Rhode Island has waived its eleventh amendment immunity. Although the circumstances are peculiar, we agree. 2

It is well settled that just as a state may waive its sovereign immunity to suit in its own courts, it may waive its eleventh amendment immunity to suit in the federal courts. Atascadero, 473 U.S. at ----, 105 S.Ct. at 3144-45; Clark v. Barnard, 108 U.S. 436, 447, 2 S.Ct. 878, 883, 27 L.Ed. 780 (1883). 3 A state's waiver of sovereign immunity in its own courts does not necessarily imply waiver of its eleventh amendment immunity, however. The Supreme Court emphasized in Atascadero that "in order for a state statute or constitutional provision to constitute a waiver of Eleventh Amendment immunity, it must specify the State's intention to subject itself to suit in federal court." Atascadero, 473 U.S. at ----, 105 S.Ct. at 3147 (emphasis in original). See also Edelman, 415 U.S. at 673, 94 S.Ct. at 1360-61 ("In deciding whether a State has waived its constitutional protection under the Eleventh Amendment, we will find waiver only where stated 'by the most express language or by such overwhelming implications from the text as [will] leave no room for any other reasonable construction.' ").

Judged by the above standards, the Rhode Island statute on which Della Grotta relies for his waiver argument seems deficient. That statute, section 1 of R.I.Gen.Laws Sec. 9-31-1 (1985), reads as follows:

The state of Rhode Island ... shall, subject to the period of limitations set forth in Sec. 9-1-25, hereby be liable in all actions of tort in the same manner as a private individual or corporation, provided however, that any recovery in such action shall not exceed the monetary limitations set forth in the chapter.

This language does not refer to actions in federal court, hence failing to meet the strict standard of eleventh amendment waiver enunciated in Atascadero and Edelman, supra. But see Marrapese v. Rhode Island, 500 F.Supp. 1207 (D.R.I.1980) (finding waiver). This would be an end to the matter were it not for the fact that, in 1983, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled unequivocally, in response to questions certified by the federal district court in another case, that section 9-31-1 "manifests ... a legislative intent" to waive the State's eleventh amendment immunity to suit in federal court. Laird v. Chrysler Corp., 460 A.2d 425 (R.I.1983). The Laird decision makes it necessary for us to decide whether, in spite of the Rhode Island statute's failure to spell out an intention to allow suit against the State in a federal court, we should nonetheless defer to the Rhode Island Supreme Court and find a waiver. We believe the answer is "yes."

The question of waiver is one of state legislative intent. Cf. Palmer v. Ohio, 248 U.S. 32, 34, 39 S.Ct. 16, 17, 63 L.Ed. 108 (1918); Atascadero, 473 U.S. at ----, n. 5, 105 S.Ct. at 3153 n. 5 (Brennan, J., dissenting). The Supreme Court's insistence that a state statute reflect on its face the state's intention to waive its constitutional immunity from federal suit is a reflection of the Court's solicitude for the state's interest: the Court insists that a waiver be found only where it is manifest that one was intended. But legislative intent is a matter of state law, on which the highest court of a state speaks with finality. Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 690-91, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 1885-86, 44 L.Ed.2d 508 (1975). 4 Where the highest court of a state has construed a state statute as intending to waive the state's immunity to suit in federal court, the state's intent is just as clear as if the waiver were made explicit in the state statute.

It is true that the Supreme Court has frequently held that whether federal rights are waived is a federal question on which a state court determination does not bind a federal court. See, e.g., Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387, 404, 97 S.Ct. 1232, 1242, 51 L.Ed.2d 424 (1977); Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 243, 89 S.Ct. 1709, 1712, 23 L.Ed.2d 274 (1969); Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 439, 83 S.Ct. 822, 849, 9 L.Ed.2d 237 (1963). These cases, however, reflect the Court's concern that an individual's purported waiver of his federal rights may be marked by "[i]gnorance, incomprehension, coercion, terror, inducements, [or] subtle or blatant threats." Boykin, 395 U.S. at 242-43, 89 S.Ct. at 1711-12. A state legislature's waiver of the state's rights does not raise this concern. It would be inappropriate for a federal court, in reviewing a state legislative waiver of the eleventh amendment, to inquire into whether the legislators were acting in a voluntary and knowing manner. Similarly, when the highest state court declares the intent of its own legislature,...

To continue reading

Request your trial
48 cases
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Maine
    • April 28, 1987
    ...of sovereign immunity in its own courts does not necessarily imply waiver of its eleventh amendment immunity," Della Grotta v. Rhode Island, 781 F.2d 343, 346 (1st Cir.1986), certainly a state officer's power to waive eleventh amendment immunity in federal court is greater where, as here, t......
  • Bergemann v. State of R.I.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island
    • March 5, 1997
    ...nevertheless found sufficient legislative intent to waive Eleventh Amendment immunity from tort liability. Della Grotta v. Rhode Island, 781 F.2d 343, 346-46 (1st Cir.1986); Laird v. Chrysler Corp., 460 A.2d 425 (R.I. However, waiver under § 9-31-1 is limited to those actions which are "tra......
  • Rhode Island Dept. of Environmental Mgmt. v. U.S.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • April 8, 2002
    ...Laws § 9-31-1 effects a broad waiver of Rhode Island's sovereign immunity for certain claims in federal court. Della Grotta v. Rhode Island, 781 F.2d 343, 347 (1st Cir.1986); see also Laird, 460 A.2d at 429-30 (holding that § 9-31-1 waives the state's Eleventh Amendment immunity with regard......
  • Healey v. Bendick, Civ. A. No. 85-0341-S.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island
    • February 12, 1986
    ...Civil Liberties Union v. Rhode Island Lottery Commission, 553 F.Supp. 752, 766 n. 9 (D.R.I.1982). Indeed the state supreme court—to which Della Grotta demands that substantial deference be paid in this area, see n. 10 ante—has held that, notwithstanding the presence of § 9-31-1, the state's......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT