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Rhode Island v. United States

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20197
Nos. No. C.A. 00-44-T, 115 F. Supp. 2d 269/(D.R.I., 09/29/2000)

The court grants Rhode Island's motion to preliminarily enjoin proceedings before the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in which several state employees sought damages and other relief against the state for allegedly violating the Solid Waste Disposal Act's whistleblower protection provision. The court first holds that the state will likely succeed on the merits of its claim that the proceedings are barred by the Eleventh Amendment and the doctrine of sovereign immunity. State sovereign immunity is not negated merely because the claims were brought before an administrative board. Here, the proceedings before DOL are not enforcement actions brought by DOL. Rather, they are proceedings to adjudicate claims for relief made by the employees in which the state is compelled to participate and which will significantly or conclusively impact determination of the state's liability. Thus, they are no different than suits against the state that would be barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity if brought in a court of law. The court next holds that the state did not waive its sovereign immunity by applying for and accepting federal funds under the Federal Hazardous Waste Program or by enacting the Rhode Island Tort Claims Act. The court also holds that the state demonstrated irreparable harm. Sovereign immunity and Eleventh Amendment immunity are rights of constitutional dimension, and the violation of a constitutional right is deemed to cause irreparable harm. Moreover, this harm outweighs any hardship that may be imposed as a result of the injunction. Consequently, the court preliminarily enjoins the proceedings. The court notes, however, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is not enjoined from investigating the alleged violations on which the employees' claims were based or from seeking to enforce the state's compliance with federal law.

Counsel for Respondents
Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
State Capitol, Albany NY 12224
(518) 474-7330

Counsel for Appellant
Laura Zeisel
Wichler & Gobetz
400 Rella Blvd., Suffern NY 10901
(845) 368-1710