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In a decision that impacts all court workers in Pennsylvania, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that county courts are “state entities” — despite the fact that they are locally funded — and are therefore entitled to immunity under the 11th Amendment. In its 13-page opinion in Benn v. First Judicial District, the court upheld the dismissal of a former probation officer’s lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, citing a 2001 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that said the ADA cannot be enforced against state agencies. For the 3rd Circuit, the issue was not whether state agencies may be sued under Title I of the ADA because that question was decided by the Supreme Court in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett in which the justices held that states are immune from such suits under the 11th Amendment because Congress had not properly “abrogated” the immunity. But plaintiff Donald Benn argued that, as an employee of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, he should be allowed to pursue an ADA claim against the court because it is a city agency that is not entitled to 11th Amendment immunity. Benn’s lawyer, Ross Begelman of Begelman & Orlow in Cherry Hill, N.J., noted that Benn’s paychecks came from the city and that he was required to live within the city to keep his job. But attorney David M. Donaldson of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts insisted that Pennsylvania has a “unified judicial system” and that all county courts must be considered state agencies. Now the 3rd Circuit has sided with Donaldson and held that all of Pennsylvania’s courts must be treated as state agencies. “Under the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of the state constitution, the [1st] Judicial District and its counterparts are state entities,” U.S. Circuit Judge Dolores K. Sloviter wrote. “That they are locally funded may be problematic for a variety of reasons, but it does not transform them into local entities for 11th Amendment purposes,” Sloviter wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Maryanne Trump Barry and D. Brooks Smith. For Benn, a 20-year veteran of the city’s parole department, the ruling may spell the end to a court battle that began in 1998. According to court papers, Benn was hired in 1977 as a probation and parole officer, and throughout most of his career he was engaged in clerical and administrative tasks. In 1996, Benn was transferred to work in the enforcement unit and was appointed to work as a special deputy by the United States Marshals Office. In the new position, Benn had to carry a gun and wear a bulletproof vest because his duties included locating and apprehending dangerous criminals. Benn said in his suit that he was “not mentally suited for this position,” and that, soon after his transfer, he began experiencing job-related anxiety and stress. The suit alleged that he suffered post-traumatic shock after seeing a co-worker assaulted. In October 1996, Benn was accidentally struck by a car after seeing a probation violator on the street. According to the suit, he took a leave from work for the next eight months, citing physical injuries from the accident, post-traumatic shock disorder and chronic depression. But the suit alleged that the 1st Judicial District refused to offer Benn any accommodation for his stress disorder, and that he was ultimately fired. The suit originally named three defendants — the 1st Judicial District, the city of Philadelphia, and the Board of Pensions and Retirement Municipal Pension Fund — and alleged claims of discrimination and retaliation under the ADA as well as state law claims. U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno put Benn’s case in “civil suspense” when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would be hearing the Garrett case, which raised the issue of whether states are entitled to 11th Amendment immunity from claims under Title I of the ADA. Benn later agreed to drop his claims against the city and the pension fund, but pressed his claims against the 1st Judicial District. Robreno dismissed the suit after Garrett was handed down, saying he rejected Benn’s argument that he was a city employee. Instead, Robreno concluded that since the 1st Judicial District qualified as a “state entity,” it was entitled to 11th Amendment immunity. In a separate order handed down on the same day, Robreno formally dismissed the claims against the city and the pension fund. When Benn appealed the ruling, confusion arose because his lawyers mistakenly attached Robreno’s second order to their notice of appeal. Court records show that the 3rd Circuit’s clerk’s office opened two separate appeals in Benn’s case and later dismissed both cases in January 2002 on the grounds that Benn had dropped them. Nothing happened for three years until January 2005 when Benn’s appeal of his claims against the 1st Judicial District was reopened. The court’s docket states that “it appears that the appeal … was closed in error,” and that the case would “immediately proceed to briefing.” In his brief, Donaldson argued that Benn’s case should be dismissed because his notice of appeal was faulty. By the time Benn’s lawyers cured the defect in their original notice, he argued, the 30-day time limit had expired. But Sloviter found that Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure should be construed “liberally” and that, “even if a notice does not meet the letter of Rule 3, there is appellate jurisdiction if the appellant has filed a ‘functional equivalent’ of a proper notice.” Sloviter then turned to the central question in Benn’s case — whether the 1st Judicial District is “an instrumentality of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania” and therefore entitled to immunity under the 11th Amendment from a suit brought by a former employee under the ADA. In a series of cases, Sloviter noted, the 3rd Circuit has held that various Pennsylvania agencies and entities are entitled to 11th Amendment immunity even though the state itself was not named as a defendant, including the Department of Public Welfare; the Department of Labor and Industry; the state university system; and the Department of Transportation. But Sloviter found that the 3rd Circuit has not yet addressed the issue of whether a county court qualified as a state entity. To decide such questions, Sloviter said, the 3rd Circuit announced a three-factor test in its 1989 decision in Fitchik v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations Inc. The Fitchik court held that courts must consider: the source of the money that would pay the judgment (i.e., whether that source would be the state); the status of the entity under state law; and the degree of autonomy the entity has. Although none of the three factors alone is dispositive, the Fitchik court held that the first — funding — is the most important. But Donaldson argued that the Fitchik test must now be modified because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in Regents of the University of Cal. v. Doe. Sloviter agreed, finding that, in light of Doe, the 3rd Circuit “can no longer ascribe primacy to the first factor.” But Sloviter found that “the relegation of financial liability to the status of one factor co-equal with others in the immunity analysis does not mean that it is to be ignored. Like the other two factors referred to in Fitchik, it is simply to be considered as an indicator of the relationship between the state and the entity at issue.” Begelman argued that the First Judicial District is “merely a local entity undeserving of the protection of the 11th Amendment.” He noted that Benn’s paycheck was issued by the city; the union to which he belonged negotiated its contracts with the city; Benn was required to live within city limits; and the car he was given for work assignments was owned by the city. But Sloviter found that the second and third Fitchik factors show that Pennsylvania’s county courts must be considered state entities. “In fact, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has held that the bifurcated funding scheme prescribed by the General Assembly is ‘in conflict with the intent clearly expressed in the constitution that the judicial system be unified,’” Sloviter wrote, citing the state Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in County of Allegheny v. Commonwealth. As a result, Sloviter found that the continued local funding of county courts is outweighed by the fact that the state’s constitution treats them as state entities. Sloviter also rejected Benn’s argument that 11th Amendment immunity should not be extended to the Philadelphia courts since the city has agreed to indemnify the courts in any lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the same argument in Doe, Sloviter noted, when it held that the 11th Amendment “protects the state from the risk of adverse judgments even though the state may be indemnified by a third party.” In her final paragraph, Sloviter wrote: “The Pennsylvania Constitution envisions a unified state judicial system, of which the [1st] Judicial District is an integral component. From a holistic analysis of the [1st] Judicial District’s relationship with the state, it is undeniable that Pennsylvania is the real party in interest in Benn’s suit and would be subjected to both indignity and an impermissible risk of legal liability if the suit were allowed to proceed.”

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