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May a lawsuit against a state agency be brought in federal court?

Seattle, WA |

I believe that a state agency violated my equal treatment and due process rights under the US and state constitution. A state statute required the state agency pay a benefit to me. The stated agency failed to comply and an appeal was sought. After the appeal was accepted, I filed for summary judgment. Summary judgment was granted and the benefit was paid however, it took nearly a full year to get a ruling and to receive the benefit. I did not receive interest on the benefit amount. I want to seek a cause of action but not in state court. I don't trust a state court to reprimand a state agency.

Attorney Answers 3


Several recent Supreme Court decisions have held that state agencies have Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in state court except where Congress expressly and clearly provides that, to vindicate specified federal rights, state agencies can be sued in Federal Court. Thus, for example, state agencies and universities cannot be sued in Federal court for patent infringement unless they are found to have waived sovereign immunity, because Congress has not expressly abrogated state immunity for patent suits. Further, ordinarily under the Bivens rule, civil rights cases may be brought in Federal Court against individuals employed by the state (e.g., for example, police officers who violate constitutional mandates by engaging in brutality), but not the state, municipality, or agency itself. State sovereign immunity is one of the more complex and difficult areas of the law, and you would need to retain counsel to review the facts and circumstances of your specific case before deciding whether you could sue in Federal Court. The first step is to determine whether you have a Federal cause of action (and I doubt that you have one here), and only if you have a federal cause of action, do you then need to determine whether the state agency is immune from suit on that cause of action. The conservative Roberts Supreme Court has made it even harder now than twenty years ago to sue state agencies in Federal Court, so I would rather doubt that you could to that here, but it is probably worth retaining counsel to investigate the situation for you.

Remember, however one important point. Even if you are stuck in state court, the final appeal of any state decision is to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has discretion to take the case or turn it down. Getting a case before the US Supreme Court is less likely than getting struck by lightening, but stranger things have happened.

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It is not within the jurisdiction of a court to reprimand a State agency, that would be a legislative or executive function. Federal court would have to have diversity jurisdiction to hear such an action unless there is a federal statute that is involved which authorizes such an action. It is not unusual for rulings to take more than a year.

The information is for general information purposes only. Nothing stated above should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation.

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The use of the "reprimand" was a poor choice. What I meant is that it is my opinion that a judge in a state court is less likely to rule against a state agency is suits against a state agency by an individual. Judges in state courts are elected whereas judges in federal courts are not. I am not certain that diversity jurisdiction is applicable in my case since any suit would be me as a citizen of the state of Washington against a Washington state agency. The amount in controversy certainly exceeds $85,000, but the litigants would be of the same state. Because the violation committed by the state agency involves the violation of the US Constitution, wouldn't that make the issue a federal question thereby establishing jurisdiction in federal court?


A federal court may dismiss your federal action on the grounds that your claim for interest is part and parcel of your existing (prior) state case. Ditto if you are seeking damages for the initial failure of the state to pay the benefit. The law of every jurisdiction (and federal law, too) prohibits splitting causes of actions (claims) into small pieces. The whole enchilada needs to be dealt with as part of a single case.

Your matter is procedurally complicated and no one here can fully and accurately analyze whether you still have rights to act in state court for interest or damages. Time limits may have passed. You would be best served by a consultation with a litigation attorney who can review the full procedural record and assess what has gone before as that will define and limit your present options.

My responses to questions on Avvo are never intended as legal advice and must not be relied upon as legal advice. I give legal advice only in the course of an attorney-client relationship. Exchange of information through Avvo's Questions forum does not establish an attorney-client relationship with me. That relationship is established only by individual consultation and execution of a written agreement for legal services.

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