HOWLETT V. ROSE, 496 U. S. 356 (1990)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356 (1990)

Howlett By and Through Howlett v. Rose

No. 89-5383

Argued March 20, 1990

Decided June 11, 1990

496 U.S. 356


State as well as federal courts have jurisdiction over suits brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which creates a remedy for violations of federal rights committed by persons acting under color of state law. Petitioner, a former high school student, filed a § 1983 suit in a Florida Circuit Court seeking damages and injunctive relief against, inter alios, the local school board, alleging, among other things, that his federal constitutional rights were violated when his car was searched on school premises in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Federal Constitution, and that he was suspended from classes without due process. The court held that it lacked jurisdiction over the board, and dismissed the complaint against the board with prejudice, citing Hill v. Department of Corrections, 513 So.2d 129, in which the State Supreme Court ruled that Florida's statutory waiver of sovereign immunity applied only to state court tort actions and conferred a blanket immunity on state governmental entities from federal civil rights actions under § 1983 in state court. The District Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal, holding that the availability of sovereign immunity in a § 1983 action brought in state court is a matter of state law, and that, under Hill, the statutory waiver of immunity did not apply.

Held: A state law "sovereign immunity" defense is not available to a school board in a § 1983 action brought in a state court that otherwise has jurisdiction when such defense would not be available if the action were brought in a federal forum. Pp. 496 U. S. 361-383.

(a) Since the defendant in Hill was a state agency protected from suit in federal court by the Eleventh Amendment, see Quern v. Jordan, 440 U. S. 332, 440 U. S. 341, and thus was not a "person" within the meaning of § 1983, see Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U. S. 58, Hill's actual disposition, if not its language and reasoning, comports with Will, which established that the State and arms of the State, which have traditionally enjoyed Eleventh Amendment immunity, are not subject to suit under § 1983 in either federal or state court. However, in construing Hill to extend absolute immunity not only to the State and its arm

Page 496 U. S. 357

but also to municipalities, counties, and school districts who might otherwise be subject to suit under § 1983 in federal court, the District Court of Appeal's decision raises the concern that that court may be evading federal law and discriminating against federal causes of action. The adequacy of the state law ground to support a judgment precluding litigation of the federal claim is a federal question, which this Court reviews de novo. See, e.g., James v. Kentucky, 466 U. S. 341, 466 U. S. 348-349. 496 U. S. 361-366,

(b) Under the Supremacy Clause, state courts have a concurrent duty to enforce federal law according to their regular modes of procedure. See, e.g., Claflin v. Houseman, 93 U. S. 130, 93 U. S. 136-137. Such a court may not deny a federal right, when the parties and controversy are properly before it, in the absence of a "valid excuse." Douglas v. New York, N.H. & H.R. Co., 279 U. S. 377, 279 U. S. 387-389. An excuse that is inconsistent with or violates federal law is not a valid excuse: the Supremacy Clause forbids state courts to dissociate themselves from federal law because of disagreement with its content or a refusal to recognize the superior authority of its source. See, e.g., Mondou v. New York, N.H. & H.R. Co., 223 U. S. 1, 223 U. S. 57. A valid excuse may exist when a state court refuses jurisdiction because of a neutral state rule of judicial administration, see, e.g., Douglas, supra, unless that rule is preempted by federal law, see Felder v. Casey, 487 U. S. 131. Pp. 496 U. S. 367-375.

(c) The District Court of Appeal's refusal to entertain § 1983 actions against state entities such as school boards violates the Supremacy Clause. If that refusal amounts to the adoption of a substantive rule of decision that state agencies are not subject to liability under § 1983, it directly violates federal law, which makes governmental defendants that are not arms of the State liable for their constitutional violations under § 1983. See, e.g., St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U. S. 112, 485 U. S. 121-122. Conduct by persons acting under color of state law which is wrongful under § 1983 cannot be immunized by state law, even though the federal cause of action is being asserted in state court. See, e.g., Martinez v. California, 444 U. S. 277, 444 U. S. 284, and n. 8. If, on the other hand, the District Court of Appeal's decision meant that § 1983 claims are excluded from the category of tort claims that the Circuit Court could hear against a school board, it was no less violative of federal law. Cf. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Burnette, 239 U. S. 199, 239 U. S. 201. The State has constituted the Circuit Court as a court of general jurisdiction, and it entertains state common law and statutory claims against state entities in a variety of their capacities, as well as § 1983 actions against individual state officials. A state policy that declines jurisdiction over one discrete category of § 1983 claims, yet permits similar state law actions against state defendants, can be based only on the rationale that such defendants should not be held liable for § 1983 violations. Thus, there is no neutral or valid excuse for the refusal to hear suits like petitioner's. Pp. 496 U. S. 375-381.

Page 496 U. S. 358

(d) There is no merit to respondent's argument that a federal court has no power to compel a state court to entertain a claim over which it lacks jurisdiction under state law. The fact that a rule is denominated jurisdictional does not provide a state court an excuse to avoid the obligation to enforce federal law if the rule does not reflect the concerns of power over the person and competence over the subject matter that jurisdictional rules are designed to protect. Also meritless is respondent's contention that sovereign immunity is not a creature of state law, but of long-established legal principles that Congress did not intend to abrogate in enacting § 1983. Congress did take common law principles into account in, e.g., excluding States and arms of the State from the definition of "person," but individual States may not rely on their own common law heritage to exempt from federal liability persons that Congress subjected to liability. Pp. 496 U. S. 381-383.

537 So.2d 706 (App.2d Dist.1989), reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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