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Court: P.G. County teacher can sue board under ADA

The Prince George’s County Board of Education does not have immunity from suits under the Americans with Disability Act seeking $100,000 or less, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held.

The 2-1 decision affirms a ruling by a federal judge in Greenbelt, who allowed elementary school teacher Hope Lee-Thomas to proceed with her suit for $100,000 in compensatory damages.

“We’re pretty happy with the ruling,” said L. Jeanette Rice, Lee-Thomas’ lawyer. “Now, we’re waiting to see what Maryland plans to do.”

The state can ask for reconsideration by the panel or the full 4th Circuit, seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court or proceed to trial. Linda Hitt Thatcher, who is representing the board, declined to comment on the case on Monday.

Lee-Thomas, who is still employed by the county school system, has a significant hearing impairment. She claims the board, as her employer, failed to make reasonable accommodations when she taught at Morningside Elementary School.

Lee-Thomas filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2006. She received a right-to-sue letter from the agency in October 2008 and filed suit that December.

The complaint initially sought $2 million in punitive and compensatory damages against the board, which is considered a state agency. The board filed for summary judgment in October 2009, claiming immunity under the 11th Amendment.

The 11th Amendment, which dates to the 1790s, has been broadly interpreted to provide immunity to a state from federal lawsuits filed by its own citizens unless that immunity is waived.

In February 2010, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Day ruled that the state had waived its immunity, by statute, for compensatory damages of $100,000 or less. Day gave Lee-Thomas 21 days to amend her complaint, which she did that same day, to ask for $100,000 in compensatory damages.

On appeal, Judge Robert B. King, who wrote last week’s majority opinion, said that Maryland law clearly waived immunity for state boards of education for claims under a certain amount. Section 5-518(c) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article provides that a “county board of education may not raise the defense of sovereign immunity to any claim of $100,000 or less.”

The 4th Circuit judges also pointed out that the issue of 11th Amendment immunity had been addressed already by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

In that case, Board of Education of Baltimore County v. Zimmer-Rubert, the board claimed immunity from a teacher’s age discrimination lawsuit for $100,000 in compensatory damages.

The Court of Appeals’ 2009 decision said the statutory wording was an “express waiver of all governmental immunity” for claims under $100,000.

“We relied on that case pretty heavily,” Rice said. “Our position was that the Maryland high court has spoken on the issue. I thought the [Zimmer-Rubert] case was pretty explicit.”

The board argued that the state law and the Court of Appeals’ decision were not binding on the federal court, deciding a question of federal law.

That argument persuaded one of the three judges on the 4th Circuit panel. Judge Barbara M. Keenan dissented from the majority opinion because she said the case presented an issue of federal rather than state law.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Hope Lee-Thomas v. Prince George’s County Public, 4USCA No. 10-1699. Published. Opinion by Judge Robert B. King. Dissent by Judge Barbara M. Keenan Argued Sept. 20, 2011. Filed Jan.11, 2012.

Issue:

Whether the district court correctly concluded that the State of Maryland had waived 11th Amendment immunity for a county board of education as to monetary claims not exceeding $100,000.

Holding:

Affirmed; Courts and Judicial Proceedings Section 5-518(c) expressly waives sovereign immunity for claims of this amount, providing that a “county board of education may not raise the defense of sovereign immunity to any claim of $100,000 or less.”

Counsel:

Linda Hitt Thatcher, Abbey G. Hairston, Robert Judah Baror and Leslie Robert Stellman for petitioners; L.Jeanette Rice for respondent.

RecordFax # 12-0111-60.