Are Deputy Sheriffs Who Provide Courthouse Security Entitled to Eleventh Amendment Immunity in California?

By: Temitayo O. Peters & Gregory B. Thomas

The Supreme Court Precedent

In 1997, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to consider this novel question in McMillian v. Monroe County, Alabama, 520 U.S. 781 (1997).  The subject lawsuit arose after employees of Monroe County, including the Sheriff of Monroe County, allegedly intimidated the plaintiff “into making false statements and suppressed exculpatory evidence.”

After both the district court and the Eleventh Circuit granted the Sheriff and other defendants sued in their official capacities Eleventh Amendment immunity, plaintiff appealed.  The Supreme Court began its review of the lower courts’ decision by simply asking whether the Sheriff represented the State or the County when he acted in his law enforcement capacity.  To answer this question, the Supreme Court reviewed Alabama law and determined that: (1) the Alabama Constitution contains provisions that demonstrate an intent to define sheriffs as agents of the state when they are exercising their law enforcement functions; (2) the Alabama Supreme Court has interpreted the Alabama Constitution to define sheriffs as executive officers of the state; and (3) relevant provisions of the Alabama Code further support this conclusion.  As a result, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower Court’s decision granting the Sheriff Eleventh Amendment immunity.

Application to the Ninth Circuit

Since McMillian, very few Ninth Circuit courts have considered the question of whether deputy sheriffs who provide courthouse security are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.  In Rojas v. Sonoma County, 2011 WL 5024551 (N.D. Cal. 2011) (unpublished), the Northern District of California applied McMillian and looked to California law to determine whether a Sonoma County deputy was entitled to this immunity after the plaintiff accused the deputy defendant of physically assaulting and calling him names during a hearing.  After analyzing various provisions of the California Government Code, which grant the State the “sole responsibility for funding of court operations,” the court determined that the deputy defendant was providing courtroom services as a State agent during the complained-of events and thus immune from the plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against him in his official capacity under the Eleventh Amendment.

In another more recent case, the Northern District of California also determined that Santa Clara County deputies are state actors when they provide courtroom security services under State law and are thus entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity for claims brought against them in their official capacities.  Hiramanek v. Clark, 2013 WL 4734025, *4 (N.D. Cal. 2013)(unpublished); Hiramanek v. Clark, 2014 WL 107634, *11, fn. 12 (N.D. Cal. 2014) (unpublished). The Central District of California has similarly recognized the applicability of this immunity in the context of an official-capacity claim against the Los Angeles County Sheriff arising out of the provision of court security services.  Hawkins v. Comparet-Cassani, 33 F.Supp.2d 1244 (C.D. Cal. 1999), opinion modified on reconsideration (Feb. 5, 1999), rev’d in part on other grounds, 251 F.3d 1230 (9th Cir. 2001).

Eleventh Amendment Immunity in the Eastern District of California

The Supreme Court’s decision in McMillian and the related Northern and Central District of California decisions are particularly pertinent to an ongoing case in which Burke, Williams & Sorensen represents employees of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.  The allegations in this ongoing matter relate to events that occurred within the Superior Court of California, County of San Joaquin while deputy sheriffs were providing courthouse security.  In light of this fact, we argued that the County and the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office deputy sheriffs involved in the events of the alleged incident are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.

The Eastern District of California agreed with our argument and granted San Joaquin County and the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office Eleventh Amendment immunity.  See Black Lives Matter-Stockton Chapter v. San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, 2019 WL 2763914 (E. D. Cal. 2019) (unpublished).  The court also granted the Sheriff, who was sued in his official capacity, Eleventh Amendment immunity from all of Plaintiffs’ claims except for the claim for prospective injunctive relief, which the court allowed to proceed under the Ex parte Young doctrine.

After reviewing McMillian and other federal court precedents, the Eastern District of California conducted a careful, detailed analysis of relevant California statutes before applying Eleventh Amendment immunity to bar Plaintiffs’ claims in this matter.  Of particular note to the court was a specific California statute that gives the Superior Court direct control over the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department who are tasked with providing court security services in San Joaquin County.  In light of this fact, the court concluded that “[w]hen San Joaquin County sheriffs are providing court security to the Superior Court, they are acting as state employees . . . [and thus] immune from suit for damages against them in their official capacities by virtue of the Eleventh Amendment . . .”

Conclusion

To date, it does not appear that the Southern District of California has had the opportunity to analyze Eleventh Amendment immunity in the context of a Sheriff providing courtroom security.  Nevertheless, based on McMillian’s precedent, the Eastern District of California’s careful analysis and the other federal decisions on point, it preliminarily appears that deputy sheriffs who provide courthouse security are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity under California law.  Until the California Supreme Court or the Ninth Circuit weigh in on this issue, however, the fact-specific inquiry applied by McMillian court and the Eastern District of California will be a useful roadmap for making this argument in other, similar cases moving forward.

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