Kirchmann v. Unified School Dist., No. E026060.

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtRichli
Citation100 Cal.Rptr.2d 289,83 Cal.App.4th 1098
PartiesNorma KIRCHMANN, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. LAKE ELSINORE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT et al., Defendants and Respondents.
Docket NumberNo. E026060.
Decision Date27 September 2000
100 Cal.Rptr.2d 289
83 Cal.App.4th 1098
Norma KIRCHMANN, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
LAKE ELSINORE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT et al., Defendants and Respondents.
No. E026060.
Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 2.
September 27, 2000.
As Modified on Denial of Rehearing October 11, 2000.
Review Denied January 10, 20001.*

[100 Cal.Rptr.2d 290]

[83 Cal.App.4th 1100]

Donal M. Hill, San Diego, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Walsh & Declues, Jeffrey P. Thompson and Gregory A. Wille, Santa Ana, for Defendant and Respondent Lake Elsinore Unified School District.

No appearance for Defendants and Respondents Keith McCarthy, Normand Tanguay, David Long, Jeanie Corral, Richard Jenkins, Vick Knight, Jeannine Martineau and Sonja Wilson.

OPINION

RICHLI, Acting P.J.


The issue in this case is whether the Lake Elsinore Unified School District (the District) is immune from suit under Title 42 United States Code section 1983 (hereafter, section 1983) as an instrumentality of the State of California. As we will discuss, public education in California is "uniquely a fundamental concern of the State" (Butt v. State of California (1992) 4 Cal.4th 668, 685, 15 Cal.Rptr.2d 480, 842 P.2d 1240), and "[t]he Constitution has always

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vested `plenary' power over education not in the districts, but in the State...." (Id., at p. 688, 15 Cal.Rptr.2d 480, 842 P.2d 1240.) Therefore, in accordance with authority of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that a California school district is an arm of the state for Eleventh Amendment purposes (Belanger v. Madera Unified School Dist. (9th Cir. 1992) 963 F.2d 248, 254), we will conclude the District does enjoy the state's immunity from liability under section 1983.

I
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The facts are set forth in detail in this court's previous decision in this case, Kirchmann v. Lake Elsinore Unified School Dist. (1997) 57 Cal.App.4th 595, 67 Cal. Rptr.2d 268. Norma Kirchmann, an employee of the District, was suspended for 30 days after she anonymously communicated to bidders on a District construction management contract her view that a conflict of interest existed in the selection process. Kirchmann petitioned for a writ of mandate to overturn the suspension. This court concluded Kirchmann's communication was protected by the First Amendment, and the suspension therefore was improper. (Id., at p. 614, 67 Cal. Rptr.2d 268.)

Kirchmann then sued the District under section 1983. The District demurred, arguing it was an arm of the state and therefore immune from suit

83 Cal.App.4th 1101

under section 1983. The court sustained the demurrer, and Kirchmann appealed.

II
DISCUSSION

A. The Belanger Decision

Section 1983 provides, in relevant part, that "[e]very person who ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States ... to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress...." Local governmental bodies such as cities and counties are considered "persons" subject to suit under section 1983. (Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services (1978) 436 U.S. 658, 690-691, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2035-2036, 56 L.Ed.2d 611.) States and their instrumentalities, on the other hand, are not. (Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police (1989) 491 U.S. 58, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 2311, 105 L.Ed.2d 45.)

To our knowledge, no previous decision has considered the precise question here, whether a California school district should be considered a local governmental body subject to suit under section 1983, or an instrumentality of the state exempt from suit.1 In Belanger v. Madera Unified School Dist, supra, 963 F.2d 248 (hereafter, Belanger), however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered a closely related question—whether a California school district was an arm of the state for purposes of the Eleventh Amendment.

The Eleventh Amendment prohibits federal courts from hearing "any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States...." The prohibition "encompasses not only actions in which a State is actually named as the defendant, but also certain actions against state agents and state instrumentalities." (Regents of the University of California v. Doe (1997) 519 U.S. 425, 429, 117 S.Ct. 900, 903, 137 L.Ed.2d 55.) The Belanger court concluded the school district was an arm of the state,2 and thereof Education (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 1618, 52 Cal.Rptr.2d 448.)

100 Cal.Rptr.2d 292

fore enjoyed Eleventh Amendment immunity. The court noted that,

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unlike school districts in most states, California districts were funded primarily by the state. This was attributable to two factors—first, the need to ensure equality of funding as required by Serrano v. Priest (1976) 18 Cal.3d 728,135 Cal.Rptr. 345, 557 P.2d 929, and second, the limitations on local property tax revenues imposed by Proposition 13. Therefore, a judgment against the school district would be paid using state funds. (Belanger, supra, 963 F.2d at pp. 251-252.)

In addition, the Belanger court noted, public education was a matter of statewide concern in California. The state exercised substantial control over school affairs and maintained beneficial ownership of school district property. The California Supreme Court had described school districts as "`agencies of the state for the local operation of the state school system.'" (Belanger, supra, 963 F.2d at p. 254, quoting Hall v. City of Taft (1956) 47 Cal.2d 177, 179, 302 P.2d 574.)

Other Ninth Circuit decisions, and decisions of federal district courts in the Ninth Circuit, similarly have extended Eleventh Amendment immunity to a California county office of education (Eaglesmith v. Ward (9th Cir.1995) 73 F.3d 857, 860); to California community college districts (Mitchell v. Los Angeles Community College Dist. (9th Cir.1988) 861 F.2d 198, 201; Cerrato v. San Francisco Community College Dist. (9th Cir.1994) 26 F.3d 968, 972; Wasson v. Sonoma County Jr. College Dist. (N.D.Cal.1997) 4 F.Supp.2d 893, 901-902; Stones v. Los Angeles Community College Dist. (C.D.Cal.1983) 572 F.Supp. 1072, 1076-1078), and, under Belanger, to a city school district. (Doe v. Petaluma City School Dist. (N.D.Cal.1993) 830 F.Supp. 1560, 1577.) At least one California court also has relied on Belanger for the proposition that a school district enjoys Eleventh Amendment immunity. (Cutler-Orosi Unified School Dist. v. Tulare County School etc. Authority (1994) 31 Cal.App.4th 617, 633, 37 Cal.Rptr.2d 106.)

The District contends that, since under Belanger a school district is an arm of the state for Eleventh Amendment purposes, it is an instrumentality of the state for purposes of section 1983 and hence immune from suit under that

83 Cal.App.4th 1103

statute. Kirchmann challenges this conclusion on two grounds. First, she argues the fact an entity may be entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity does not necessarily mean it is immune from suit under section 1983. Second, she argues that, even if the Eleventh Amendment immunity analysis is applicable in determining immunity from suit under section 1983, Belanger was incorrect in concluding a California school district enjoys Eleventh Amendment protection.

B. Applicability of Eleventh Amendment Analysis

Kirchmann's first argument is relatively easy to answer. She contends that, because the Eleventh Amendment only prohibits suit against a state in federal court, Eleventh Amendment analysis does not control whether an entity can be sued in state court, even on a federal cause of action such as a section 1983 claim.

100 Cal.Rptr.2d 293

The fact that a claim against a state or its agency cannot be brought in federal court due to the Eleventh Amendment does not, of course, necessarily mean the claim cannot be asserted in state court either. Tort actions may be brought against the state or its agencies in state court under the California Tort Claims Act (Gov.Code, § 810 et seq.) but may not be brought in federal court, because the consent to suit contained in the act (Gov.Code, § 945) is not a waiver of Eleventh Amendment immunity. (BV Engineering v. Univ. of Cal, Los Angeles (9th Cir.1988) 858 F.2d 1394, 1396; Riggle v. State of Cal. (9th Cir.1978) 577 F.2d 579, 585-586.)

However, the analysis of the United States Supreme Court in Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, supra, 491 U.S. 58, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 105 L.Ed.2d 45 (hereafter, Will), and subsequent decisions construing Will, make clear that, if an entity enjoys Eleventh Amendment immunity, it is also immune from suit under section 1983, even in state court. The court in Will did state that the scope of the Eleventh Amendment and the scope of section 1983 were "[c]ertainly" separate issues. (Will, supra, at p. 66, 109 S.Ct. 2304.) But in holding states immune from section 1983 suits, the court noted that section 1983 was enacted in response to the inability or unwillingness of state authorities to protect civil rights. Therefore, although Congress did not establish federal courts as the exclusive forum for section 1983 suits, it plainly intended federal courts to have "`a paramount role'" in enforcing the statute. (Will, supra, at p. 66, 109 S.Ct, 2304.)

In light of that fact, the Will court concluded the fact that Congress did not override states' Eleventh Amendment immunity against suit in federal court under section 1983 indicated it also did not intend states to be subject to suit in state court under section 1983: "Given that a principal purpose behind the

83 Cal.App.4th 1104

enactment of § 1983 was to provide a federal forum for civil rights claims, and that Congress did not provide such a federal forum for civil rights claims against States, we cannot accept petitioner's argument that Congress intended nevertheless to create a cause of action against States to be...

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