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Rhode Island Dep't of Envtl. Management v. United States

ELR Citation: 32 ELR 20572
Nos. Nos. 00-2326, -1543, 286 F.3d 27/(1st Cir., 04/08/2002)

The court affirms a district court decision enjoining federal administrative proceedings on the grounds that the proceedings infringed upon a state's constitutionally protected sovereign interests. Three individuals filed administrative complaints against Rhode Island's environmental agency alleging that the agency retaliated against them in violation of a whistleblower protection provision in the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) for reporting what the individuals believed to be improper implementation of the SWDA. The state and the agency brought suit to enjoin the administrative proceedings based on sovereign immunity. The court first holds that although there was no final agency action in the administrative proceedings when the state brought this case, the issue here is not one involving ripeness of final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), but whether the court should recognize an implied cause of action that allows the state to seek direct enforcement of its constitutional rights under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, notwithstanding the formal hearing and review provisions of the APA. Such a cause of action exists. The court next holds that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar the application of sovereign immunity principles to administrative adjudications. Proceedings in the administrative law judge phase are not mere investigatory actions; they partake sufficiently of a judicial proceeding initiated and prosecuted by a private party to trigger the state's sovereign immunity. Further, a provision in the state's charter from the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified allowing the state to sue or be sued in court does not waive the state's sovereign immunity. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that such provisions are insufficient to waive the state's immunity from suit in a federal forum and the highest court of the state has long recognized that, absent statutory abrogation, Rhode Island adheres strictly to the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The court further holds that there is no statutory waiver of sovereign immunity in the SWDA. The state, therefore, demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its sovereign immunity claim. Because all other factors required for a preliminary injunction were also present, the district court properly enjoined the federal administrative proceedings.

The full text of this decision is available from ELR (40 pp., ELR Order No. L-493).

Counsel for Plaintiffs
James R. Lee, Ass't Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
150 S. Main St., Providence RI 02903
(401) 274-4400

Counsel for Defendants
Mark B. Stern
U.S. Attorney's Office
5806 Judiciary Center Bldg.
555 4th St. NW, Washington DC 20001
(202) 514-7566