Hilton v. South Carolina Public Railways Commission

Decision Date16 December 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-848,90-848
Citation502 U.S. 197,112 S.Ct. 560,116 L.Ed.2d 560
PartiesKenneth HILTON, Petitioner v. SOUTH CAROLINA PUBLIC RAILWAYS COMMISSION
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent South Carolina Public Railways Commission, a state agency that is a common carrier engaged in interstate commerce by railroad, was sued in state court under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) by its employee, petitioner Hilton, who alleged that he was injured in the course of his employment as a result of the Commission's negligence. In dismissing the complaint on the ground that FELA does not authorize a damages action against a state agency, even if suit is maintained in a state forum, the trial court acknowledged that in Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Dept., 377 U.S. 184, 84 S.Ct. 1207, 12 L.Ed.2d 233, this Court interpreted FELA to permit such actions, but held that in effect Parden had been overruled by subsequent decisions of the Court. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed.

Held: FELA creates a cause of action against a state-owned railroad, enforceable in state court. Pp. 201-207.

(a) Absent sufficient, countervailing justifications for departing from precedent, the strong considerations favoring adherence to stare decisis in this case compel the Court to reaffirm Parden insofar as it held, 377 U.S., at 187-188, 84 S.Ct., at 1210-1211, that when Congress used the phrase "[e]very common carrier by railroad" to describe the class of employers subject to FELA's terms, it intended to include state-owned railroads. Weight must be accorded to the continued acceptance of the Parden holding by Congress, which has had almost 30 years in which to take corrective action if it disagreed with that holding, but has chosen not to do so. Moreover, overruling Parden would require an extensive legislative response by the many States, including South Carolina, that have specifically excluded railroad workers from workers' compensation coverage on the assumption that FELA adequately protects those workers in the event of injuries caused by an employer's negligence, and would dislodge the settled rights and expectations of employees and employers who have been acting on that assumption. Overruling Parden would also throw into doubt this Court's decisions holding that the entire federal scheme of railroad regulation applies to state-owned railroads. Pp. 201-203.

(b) Decisions subsequent to Parden do not require the Court to depart from stare decisis in this case. Welch v. Texas Dept. of Highways and Public Transportation, 483 U.S. 468, 478, 107 S.Ct. 2941, 2948, 97 L.Ed.2d 389—which held that the Jones Act, which incorporates FELA's remedial scheme, does not abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in federal court, ibid., but which explicitly reserved the question whether in that Act (or in FELA) Congress intended to create a cause of action against the States, id., at 476, n. 6, 107 S.Ct., at 2947, n. 6 (plurality opinion); see also id., at 495, 107 S.Ct., at 2957 (WHITE, J., concurring)—cannot be characterized as having considered and rejected the aforementioned arguments for following stare decisis, since Welch neither addressed nor discussed the most vital consideration of today's decision: that to confer immunity from state-court suit would strip all FELA and Jones Act protection from state-employed workers. Further, the Welch holding cannot be treated as determinative of the issue here presented, since Welch's statement that Congress may abrogate the States' constitutionally secured immunity "only" by making its intention unmistakably clear in the statutory language, id., at 471, 107 S.Ct., at 2944, was made in the context of establishing a rule of constitutional law based on the Eleventh Amendment, which does not apply in state courts. Nor was Parden effectively overruled by Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 65, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 2308, 105 L.Ed.2d 45, which, in holding that a State is not a "person" suable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, relied in part on the lack of any "clear statement" in the statute of a congressional intent to impose such liability. Will's "clear statement" rule is not a per se rule of constitutional law, but only an "ordinary rule of statutory construction," ibid. The issue in this case, as in Will, is a pure question of statutory construction, where the stare decisis doctrine is most compelling. Thus the clear statement inquiry need not be made here and the Court need not decide whether FELA satisfies that standard, for the rule in any event does not prevail over the stare decisis doctrine as applied to a longstanding statutory construction implicating important reliance interests. And when the clear statement rule is either overcome or inapplicable so that a federal statute does impose liability upon the States, the Supremacy Clause makes that statute the law in every State, fully enforceable in state courts. Pp. 203-207.

Reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, STEVENS, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., concurred in the judgment. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined. THOMAS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Robert J. Beckham, Jacksonville, Fla., for petitioner.

Keating L. Simons, III, Charleston, S.C. for respondent.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we must decide whether the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 53 Stat. 1404, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60, creates a cause of action against a state-owned railroad, enforceable in state court. We hold that it does, reaffirming in part our decision in Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Dept., 377 U.S. 184, 84 S.Ct. 1207, 12 L.Ed.2d 233 (1964).

I

Petitioner Kenneth Hilton was an employee of the South Carolina Public Railways Commission. The Commission, which has some 300 employees, is a common carrier engaged in interstate commerce by railroad and is an agency of the State of South Carolina, having been created by statute in 1969. Hilton alleges he was injured in the scope and course of his employment and that the negligence of the Commission was the cause of the accident. In the case now before us the Commission is the respondent.

To recover for his injuries, petitioner first filed a FELA action in United States District Court. That case was pending when we announced our decision in Welch v. Texas Dept. of Highways and Public Transportation, 483 U.S. 468, 107 S.Ct. 2941, 97 L.Ed.2d 389 (1987), which held that the Jones Act, § 33, 41 Stat. 1007, 46 U.S.C.App. § 688, does not abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Jones Act incorporates the remedial scheme of FELA; and, based on his understanding that Eleventh Amendment immunity from Jones Act suits would apply as well to FELA, petitioner dismissed his federal court action. He refiled his FELA suit in a South Carolina state court, and this is the case now before us.

The state trial court dismissed Hilton's complaint on the ground that FELA does not authorize an action for money damages against an agency of the State, even if suit is maintained in a state forum. Though acknowledging that in Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Dept., supra, we interpreted FELA to permit those actions, the trial court said that Parden "has been severely limited by subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court." App. to Pet. for Cert. 22. The court held that Parden "is no longer good law," id., at 23, and ordered the action dismissed, whereupon Hilton appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

While his appeal was pending, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided Freeman v. South Carolina Public Railways Commission, 302 S.C. 51, 393 S.E.2d 383 (1990). Addressing the same issue raised by this case, Freeman held that FELA does not subject States to liability in state-court suits. As did the trial court, the State Supreme Court acknowledged our Parden holding but concluded that in effect it had been overruled by our subsequent course of decisions.

In Parden we held that FELA authorizes suits for damages against state-owned railroads, and that by entering the business of operating a railroad a State waives its Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in federal court. The latter holding was overruled in Welch, to accord with our more recent Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence, 483 U.S., at 478, 107 S.Ct., at 2948, but the Welch Court was explicit in declining to decide whether in the Jones Act (or in FELA), Congress intended to create a cause of action against the States. Id., at 476, n. 6, 107 S.Ct., at 2947, n. 6 (plurality opinion); see also id., at 495, 107 S.Ct., at 2957 (WHITE, J., concurring). In other words, the Welch decision did not disturb the statutory-construction holding of Parden.

In addressing the latter issue, the South Carolina court found "dispositive" our decision in Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 105 L.Ed.2d 45 (1989). Will was a suit brought in state court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the State of Michigan. We held that the State is not a "person" as that term is used in § 1983, and is not suable under the statute, regardless of the forum where the suit is maintained. In so holding, we relied in part on the lack of any "clear statement" in the statute of a congressional intent to impose liability on the State. In its Freeman decision that controlled its ruling in the instant case, the South Carolina court read Will to hold that a statute will not be interpreted to create a cause of action for money damages against a State unless it contains "unmistakably clear language" showing the Congress intended to do so. Deciding that the text of FELA does not have language conforming to this standard, the Freeman court held that FELA does not subject the States to liability.

When petitioner's case reached the South Carolina...

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