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Workers in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas cannot sue the court in U.S. District Court under the Americans with Disabilities Act because the city’s courts qualify as a state agency that is entitled to 11th Amendment immunity, a federal judge has ruled. In Benn v. First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno found that the Court of Common Pleas meets the three-part test established by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for determining whether an entity is an “alter ego of the state” for 11th Amendment purposes. In 1989, the 3rd Circuit held in Fitchik v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations Inc. that courts should consider three factors when deciding whether an entity is an alter ego of the state. The first factor calls for courts to consider whether the money that would pay any judgment would come from the state Treasury, whether the agency has the money to satisfy the judgment, and whether the state has immunized itself from responsibility for the agency’s debts. The second factor focuses on how the agency is treated under state law, including whether it can sue and be sued in its own right and whether it is immune from state taxes. The final factor focuses on the “degree of autonomy” the agency enjoys. Robreno found that all three factors weighed in favor of holding that the Court of Common Pleas is an arm of the state. Under the first Fitchik factor, Robreno found that Pennsylvania provides “significant funding” to the First Judicial District and that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has mandated that the state provide funding for all of the state’s lower courts. Although the Pennsylvania Legislature has never fully complied with the state Supreme Court’s decision in County of Allegheny v. Commonwealth, Robreno found that the high court’s ruling nonetheless makes clear that “funding for the judiciary system in Pennsylvania is the constitutional responsibility of the state.” Plaintiff Donald Benn argued that the city has already stipulated in his case that it would indemnify the court for any judgment he won. But Robreno found that the U.S. Supreme Court undermined that argument with its 1997 decision in University of California v. Doe, which held that a state college was entitled to 11th Amendment immunity despite a third party’s agreement to indemnify it. Instead, Robreno said, the University of California decision urged lower courts to focus on the entity’s “potential legal liability” rather than on its ability to require a third party to reimburse it. As a result, Robreno concluded that “even if the city’s stipulation was an enforceable agreement between plaintiff Benn and the city … that stipulation still would not render the district a local agency if the Fitchik factors demonstrate otherwise.” Robreno found that the second Fitchik factor was easily met because “the state law of Pennsylvania clearly views the unified judicial system … as part of the Commonwealth.” The third factor, too, was easily met, Robreno found, because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court “exercises a significant amount of supervisory and administrative control over the First Judicial District.” As a result, Robreno said, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas “lacks the necessary autonomy from the state for it to be considered a local governmental unit.” Plaintiff Benn was represented by attorneys Marc M. Orlow and Ross Begelman of Begelman & Orlow in Cherry Hill, N.J. The opinion offers no details on the nature of Benn’s claim. The First Judicial District was defended by Darren M. Breslin, Stephen E. Atkins and David M. Donaldson, all staff attorneys at the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts.

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