Welch v. Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation

Decision Date25 June 1987
Docket NumberNo. 85-1716,85-1716
Citation107 S.Ct. 2941,483 U.S. 468,97 L.Ed.2d 389
PartiesJean E. WELCH, Petitioner v. TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF HIGHWAYS AND PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioner, an employee of the Texas Highways Department, was injured while working on a ferry dock operated by the Department. She filed suit against the Department and the State under § 33 of the Jones Act, which provides that any seaman injured in the course of his employment may maintain an action for damages at law in federal district court, and which, in effect, applies the remedial provisions of the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA) to such suits. The District Court dismissed the action as barred by the Eleventh Amendment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Although recognizing that Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Dept., 377 U.S. 184, 84 S.Ct. 1207, 12 L.Ed.2d 233, held that an employee of a state-operated railroad may bring an FELA action in federal court, the Court of Appeals held that the decision was inapplicable in light of Congress' failure to include in the Jones Act an unmistakably clear expression of its intention to abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in federal court. The court also held that Texas had not consented to being sued under the Jones Act.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

780 F.2d 1268 (CA5 1986), affirmed.

Justice POWELL, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice WHITE, and Justice O'CONNOR, concluded that the Eleventh Amendment bars a state employee from suing the State in federal court under the Jones Act. Pp. 472-495.

(a) Even though the express terms of the Eleventh Amendment's prohibition are limited to federal-court suits "in law or equity" against a State by citizens of another State or a foreign country, the Amendment bars a citizen from suing his own State, Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 10 S.Ct. 504, 33 L.Ed. 842, and prohibits admiralty suits against a State, Ex parte New York, No. 1, 256 U.S. 490, 41 S.Ct. 588, 65 L.Ed. 1057, unless the State expressly waives its immunity and consents to suit in federal court. Moreover, assuming that Congress can abrogate the Eleventh Amendment when it acts pursuant to the Commerce Clause, it must express its intent to do so in unmistakable language in the statute itself. Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 105 S.Ct. 3142, 87 L.Ed.2d 171. Pp. 472-474.

(b) Congress has not expressed in unmistakable statutory language its intention to allow States to be sued in federal court under the Jones Act. Although the Act extends to "[a]ny" injured seaman, this general authorization for federal-court suits is not the kind of unequivocal statutory language that is sufficient to abrogate the Eleventh Amendment, which marks a constitutional distinction between the States and other employers of seamen. Moreover, since both lower courts rejected petitioner's contention that Texas waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, and since the petition for certiorari does not address this issue, it need not be considered here. Pp. 474-476.

(c) To the extent that Parden is inconsistent with the requirement that an abrogation of Eleventh Amendment immunity by Congress must be expressed in unmistakably clear language, it is overruled. Pp. 476-478.

(d) Hans, which firmly established that the Eleventh Amendment embodies a broad constitutional principle of sovereign immunity, and the long line of subsequent cases that reaffirmed that principle, will not be overruled in the absence of "special justification" for such a departure from the doctrine of stare decisis. The argument that the Amendment does not bar citizens' federal-question actions against the States in federal court is not persuasive for several reasons. The historical records show that, at most, the intentions of the Constitution's Framers and Ratifiers were ambiguous on the subject. Moreover, since federal-question actions unquestionably are "suits in law or equity," the plain language of the Amendment refutes the argument. Nor does the argument offer any satisfactory explanation for the overwhelming rejection of another amendment that would have allowed citizen suits against States for causes of action arising under treaties. The principle of sovereign immunity has been deeply embedded in our federal system since its inception, and is required because of the sensitive problems inherent in making one sovereign appear against its will in the courts of another. That States may not be sued absent waiver or congressional enactment is a necessary consequence of their role in a system of dual sovereignties. Pp. 478-488.

(e) The argument that the sovereign immunity doctrine has no application to citizens' admiralty suits against unconsenting States in federal courts is directly contrary to long-settled authority, including Ex parte New York, No. 1. The suggestion that the latter case overruled settled law allowing such suits is not supported by the earlier cases cited, which, on balance, indicate that unconsenting States were immune from admiralty suits, and, at the very least, demonstrate that the question was not "settled." Pp. 488-493.

Justice SCALIA concluded that, regardless of the correctness of Hans as an original matter, Congress enacted the Jones Act and the FELA provisions which it incorporates on the assumption that, as Hans appears to have held, Article III of the Constitution contains an implicit limitation on suits brought by individuals against States. The statutes cannot now be read to apply to States as though that assumption never existed. Thus, Parden is properly overruled. Pp. 495-494.

POWELL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. ----. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. ----. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. ----.

Michael D. Cucullu, Colorado Springs, Colo., for petitioner.

F. Scott McCown, Houston, Tex., for respondents.

Justice POWELL announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice WHITE, and Justice O'CONNOR join.

The question in this case is whether the Eleventh Amendment bars a state employee from suing the State in federal court under the Jones Act, ch. 250, 41 Stat. 1007, 46 U.S.C. § 688.

I

The Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation operates a free automobile and passenger ferry be- tween Point Bolivar and Galveston, Texas. Petitioner Jean Welch, an employee of the State Highway Department, was injured while working on the ferry dock at Galveston. Relying on § 33 of the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688, she filed suit in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Texas against the Highway Department and the State of Texas.1

The District Court dismissed the action as barred by the Eleventh Amendment. 533 F.Supp. 403, 407 (S.D.Tex.1982). A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, with each judge writing separately. 739 F.2d 1034 (1984). On rehearing en banc, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court. 780 F.2d 1268 (CA5 1986). The court recognized that Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Dept., 377 U.S. 184, 84 S.Ct. 1207, 12 L.Ed.2d 233 (1964), held that an employee of a state-operated railroad company may bring an action in federal court under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 53 Stat. 1404, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60. Parden is relevant to this case because the Jones Act applied the remedial provisions of the FELA to seamen. See 46 U.S.C. § 688(a). The court nevertheless concluded that "the broad sweep of the Parden decision, although it has not been overruled, has overtly been limited by later decisions as its full implications have surfaced." 780 F.2d, at 1270. The court relied on our holding that "Congress may abrogate the States' constitutionally secured immunity from suit in federal court only by making its intention unmistakably clear in the language of the statute." Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 242, 105 S.Ct. 3142, 3147, 87 L.Ed.2d 171 (1985).2 The Court of Appeals found no unmistakable expression of such an intention in the Jones Act. The court also held that Texas has not consented to suit under the Jones Act. 780 F.2d, at 1273-1274 (citing Lyons v. Texas A & M University, 545 S.W.2d 56 (Tex.Civ.App.1976), writ refused, n.r.e. We granted certiorari, 479 U.S. 811, 107 S.Ct. 58, 93 L.Ed.2d 18 (1986), and now affirm.

II

The Eleventh Amendment provides:

"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."

The Court has recognized that the significance of the Amendment "lies in its affirmation that the fundamental principle of sovereign immunity limits the grant of judicial authority in Art. III" of the Constitution. Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 98, 104 S.Ct. 900, 906-907, 79 L.Ed.2d 67 (1984) (Pennhurst II ). Accordingly, as discussed more fully in Part V of this opinion, the Court long ago held that the Eleventh Amendment bars a citizen from bringing suit against the citizen's own State in federal court, even though the express terms of the Amendment refer only to suits by citizens of another State. Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 10, 10 S.Ct. 504, 505, 33 L.Ed. 842 (1890). See Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 662-663, 94 S.Ct. 1347, 1355-1356, 39 L.Ed.2d 662 (1974); Employees v. Missouri Dept. of Public Health and Welfare, 411 U.S. 279, 280, 93 S.Ct. 1614, 1615, 36 L.Ed.2d 251 (1973). For the same reason, the Court has held that the Amendment bars suits in admiralty against...

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