Middleton v. Hartman

Decision Date15 April 2002
Docket NumberNo. 00SC809.,00SC809.
PartiesCharles MIDDLETON, as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and Leon Travis, as Assistant to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Petitioners, v. Veta M. HARTMAN, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Hogan & Hartson L.L.P., Kathryn W. Bradley, Denver, Colorado, Pryor Johnson Montoya Carney & Karr, P.C., Elizabeth C. Moran, Scott S. Nixon, Englewood, Colorado, Office of University Counsel, Joanne M. McDevitt, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Petitioners.

Miller & Jester, LLC, Jay S. Jester, Denver, Colorado, Silver & DeBoskey, P.C., Bruce H. DeBoskey, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Respondent.

Justice MARTINEZ delivered the Opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to determine whether the notice-of-claim provisions of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA), § 24-10-109, 7 C.R.S. (2001), apply to a claim against state employees sued in their individual capacities for retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 215 (1994).1 We hold that state employees do not enjoy sovereign immunity when sued in their individual capacities for willful and wanton conduct because, under these circumstances, relief is not sought from the state but only from the employees individually. Furthermore, although the General Assembly intended for the notice-of-claim provisions of the CGIA to apply regardless of whether sovereign immunity exists, we find that the CGIA's notice-of-claim provisions are preempted by the FLSA. Therefore, we conclude that the CGIA's notice-of-claim provisions do not apply to an FLSA retaliation claim against state employees sued in their individual capacities. We therefore affirm.

I. Facts and Procedure

Veta Hartman (Hartman) was employed by the University of Colorado (the University) from October 1964 until she voluntarily resigned in May 1994. In 1993, Hartman requested and received payment for 224 hours of overtime, totaling $5,673.70. As a result of an audit conducted in 1994, when Hartman voluntarily retired, the University determined that Hartman was an exempt employee under the FLSA and had been overcompensated by $5,120.00 for the overtime hours. The University demanded that the money be repaid. In lieu of repayment, the chairman of Hartman's department proposed that Hartman be allowed to work off the overcompensation through a temporary position at the University. Hartman pursued temporary openings at the University. But, according to Hartman's complaint, after being turned down for several temporary positions, Hartman was informed by another employee that Charles Middleton (Middleton), Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Leon Travis (Travis), Assistant to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, had instructed others at the University, verbally and by electronic mail, that Hartman was not to be hired because she was untrustworthy, had violated University rules, and had broken the law. Hartman was not rehired.

Hartman filed a complaint in state court in September 1996 after voluntarily dismissing her pending claims in federal court.2 The complaint alleged, among other claims,3 that the University and Middleton and Travis had retaliated against her for exercising her rights under the FLSA in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). Asserting that Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 116 S.Ct. 1114, 134 L.Ed.2d 252 (1996), should be applied to grant it immunity in cases brought against it in state court, the University filed a motion to dismiss Hartman's FLSA claims. Middleton and Travis filed a separate motion to dismiss Hartman's retaliation claims under the FLSA on the ground that they also enjoyed sovereign immunity.

The trial court denied the motions based upon its conclusion that neither the University nor Middleton and Travis enjoyed sovereign immunity from the FLSA claims. The University and Middleton and Travis appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. The court of appeals held that the University is an arm of the state and therefore is entitled to the constitutional sovereign immunity described in Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 119 S.Ct. 2240, 144 L.Ed.2d 636 (1999). Hartman, 22 P.3d at 528. Because Hartman had conceded that an FLSA retaliation claim "lies in tort," the court of appeals found that the sovereign immunity reflected in the CGIA bars the retaliation claim against the University. Id. at 529. The court of appeals therefore dismissed the FLSA retaliation claim against the University.4 Id.

With respect to the claims against Middleton and Travis, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court's order, holding that state employees do not enjoy sovereign immunity when sued in their individual capacities for violating the FLSA retaliation provisions. Id. at 529-30. Relying on Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131, 108 S.Ct. 2302, 101 L.Ed.2d 123 (1988), and Bauman v. Colorado Department of Health, 857 P.2d 499 (Colo.Ct.App.1993), the court of appeals further held that the CGIA's notice requirements cannot operate to preclude Hartman's FLSA retaliation claim against Middleton and Travis. Id. at 530.

In reaching our conclusion that the CGIA's notice-of-claim provisions do not apply to an FLSA retaliation claim against state employees in their individual capacities, we first address the issue of sovereign immunity. After concluding that state employees do not enjoy sovereign immunity when they are sued in their individual capacities for wilful and wanton conduct because the relief is sought from them personally, we next turn to whether the CGIA's notice-of-claim provisions apply to such claims despite the lack of sovereign immunity. In resolving this question, we must first consider whether the notice-of-claim provisions were intended to apply to such claims. We conclude that the CGIA's notice-of-claim provisions were meant to apply to suits against state employees in their individual capacities for wilful and wanton conduct despite the absence of sovereign immunity. However, because this is a federal claim, we must also address the issue of preemption. Thus, we must determine whether the FLSA preempts the application of the CGIA's notice-of-claim provisions. Because we find that the CGIA's notice-of-claim provisions "stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full objectives of Congress," we conclude that the FLSA preempts the notice-of-claim provisions in the CGIA. Therefore, we hold that the notice-of-claim provisions do not apply to a claim against state employees in their individual capacities for retaliation under the FLSA.

II. Sovereign Immunity
A. United States Supreme Court Precedent

The concept of sovereign immunity arose from the common law of England and was recognized as an accepted principle of law early in our nation's history. Alden, 527 U.S. at 715,119 S.Ct. 2240. "[A]lthough the American people had rejected other aspects of English political theory, the doctrine that a sovereign could not be sued without its consent was universal in the states when the Constitution was drafted and ratified." Id. at 715-16, 119 S.Ct. 2240 (citing Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 434-35, 1 L.Ed. 440 (1793)). Notwithstanding the presumed universality of this doctrine, the Supreme Court held in 1793 that a private citizen of South Carolina could in fact sue the State of Georgia without its consent. Chisholm, 2 U.S. at 420. Justice Iredell dissented, pointing out that prior to the adoption of the Constitution, a sovereign state, without its consent, was not amenable to suit at the hands of an individual, and concluded that because this rule had not been abrogated by the Constitution, the states maintained their sovereign right to be protected from suits without consent. Id. at 435-36, 448, 449-50 (Iredell, J., dissenting). Efforts to supersede the result reached in Chisholm by constitutional amendment began in both Houses of Congress within days of the decision, continued upon Congress' submission of the proposed amendment to the states for ratification in 1794, and culminated in the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment in 1798. See Calvin R. Massey, State Sovereignty and the Tenth and Eleventh Amendments, 56 U. Chi. L.Rev. 61, 111 (Winter 1989); Alden, 527 U.S. at 721,119 S.Ct. 2240.

The Eleventh Amendment provides that: "The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." U.S. Const. amend. XI. Although the Amendment speaks only to suits filed by citizens of one state against another state, the Supreme Court held in Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 21, 10 S.Ct. 504, 33 L.Ed. 842 (1890), that sovereign immunity barred suits against a state brought by its own citizens as well as those brought by citizens of another state. The court reasoned that the principle of sovereign immunity derives not just from the Eleventh Amendment, but from the structure and background principles of the Constitution. Hans, 134 U.S. at 11-12, 10 S.Ct. 504.

In Alden v. Maine, the Supreme Court extended state sovereign immunity under the United States Constitution well beyond its previously existing boundaries. Despite the suggestion of earlier Supreme Court decisions that states would be obligated to entertain federal causes of action against states in the state courts,5 the Court in Alden held otherwise. Alden involved a suit by probation officers against the State of Maine in state court to recover overtime pay, attorneys' fees, and liquidated damages pursuant to the FLSA. 527 U.S. at 711-12, 119 S.Ct. 2240. Maine argued that it had not waived its sovereign immunity, and was thus immune from an FLSA suit in state court. Id. at 757-58, 119 S.Ct. 2240. The Supreme Court undertook an extensive review of the...

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