August 22, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Eleventh Amendment Barred Claims Against Agricultural Employees

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Colby v. Herrick on March 1, 2017.

This case stemmed from a battle between Ms. Colby and her mother over the ownership of a horse. The mother complained to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which sent someone from the Brand Inspection Division to investigate the situation. After investigating, the inspector seized the horse. Ms. Colby and her mother settled the ownership dispute in court and after three years, Ms. Colby prevailed and received the horse back. Ms. Colby and her husband then sued the Division and two of its officers. The district court dismissed the action.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the Division as a defendant in the suit. It held that the Division was entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity as an arm of the state and therefore could not be sued in federal court. Further, the Tenth Circuit held that because the Division was an arm of the state entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, the Colbys could not sue the two officers in their official capacity.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed the Eleventh Amendment immunity issue de novo. The Eleventh Amendment extends to governmental entities that are considered arms of the state. When determining if the Division was an arm of the state, the Tenth Circuit laid out five factors that it considered: (1) how the Division is characterized under Colorado law; (2) how much guidance and control the state of Colorado exercises over the Division; (3) how much funding the Division receives from the State; (4) whether the Division enjoys the ability to issue bonds and levy taxes; and (5) whether the state of Colorado bears legal liability to pay judgments against the Division.

The Tenth Circuit held that the first factor weighed in favor of regarding the Division as an arm of the state. This was due to the fact that Colorado law treats the Division as part of the state government. Additionally, the Division participates in state government as a state agency and the agency’s inspectors are Colorado law enforcement officers with the power to make arrests for violations of state law.

The Tenth Circuit held that the second factor also weighed in favor of regarding the Division as an arm of the state. This was because the Division is considered part of the state Department of Agriculture and is therefore subject to control by state officials.

With regard to the third factor, the Division is entirely self-funded. Additionally, with regard to the fourth factor, the State Board of Stock Commissioners is entitled to issue bonds worth up to $10 million to pay the Division’s expenses. The Tenth Circuit held that these two factors by themselves would cut against Eleventh Amendment immunity. However, the Tenth Circuit held that because the Division is entitled to participate in the Colorado risk management fund, which obtains money from state appropriations, that use of state money supports consideration of the Division as an arm of the state.

The Tenth Circuit held that it was unclear whether the State bears legal liability to pay a judgment of the Division.

Therefore, because the first and second factors clearly support characterization as an arm of the state, and the third and fourth could go both ways, the Tenth Circuit held that the balancing of all of the factors led it to regard the Division as an arm of the state. Therefore, the Division was entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in dismissing the claims against the division. However, it did hold that the dismissal with prejudice was a mistake. Because Eleventh Amendment immunity is jurisdictional, the Tenth Circuit held that the dismissal should have been without prejudice.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the Eleventh Amendment immunity issue with regards to the Divisions’ two officers on the official-capacity claims for damages. The Tenth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to immunity in their official capacitates on behalf of the Division being an arm of the state. Therefore, The Tenth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to dismissal on the official-capacity claims for damages. However, just as with the Divisions Eleventh Amendment claim, because Eleventh Amendment immunity is jurisdictional, the district court should have dismissed the claim without prejudice.

The Tenth Circuit finally addressed the federal personal-capacity claims against the officers for damages. The district court had dismissed these claims based on timeliness. The Tenth Circuit stated that the Colbys claims had a two year statute of limitations. Further, the Tenth Circuit determined that the suffered damage accrued when the horse was seized on July 22, 2011. That action triggered the statute of limitations period. Because the Colbys did not sue until nearly three years later, the Tenth Circuit held that the claims were time-barred.

The Tenth Circuit addressed the Colbys’ argument that the statute of limitations should not have started until they were denied a timely post-deprivation hearing. The Tenth Circuit held that, even if this claim was accurate, that would only have moved the statute of limitations period six weeks in the future, which would still have resulted in the statute of limitations running out before the suit was filed.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the continued violation doctrine did not apply to this case because the complaint does not base the claim on any acts taking place after July 22, 2011. Though the Colbys did not have their horse for three years, and therefore damages continued that entire period, the wrongful acts occurred only on July 22, 2011. Therefore, the Colbys’ claims against the officers in their individual capacity were time-barred.

In sum, the Tenth Circuit held that the Division and the officers in their official capacities were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. However, because the district court dismissed these claims with prejudice, the Tenth Circuit remanded them for the limited purpose of directing the district court to make the dismissals without prejudice. Additionally, the remaining federal claims against the officers were properly dismissed based on the expiration of the statute of limitations.

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