EEOC May Sue State Court for Discrimination in Federal Court

Randi Klein Hyatt
Randi Klein Hyatt

A federal court ruled that a Pennsylvania state court that allegedly fired an employee because of her age does not have 11th Amendment immunity to avoid a lawsuit on the fired employee’s behalf brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  EEOC v. Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny Cnty., No. 14-899 (W.D. Pa., Oct. 15, 2014).

In February 2012, a staffing agency assigned 70 year old  Carolyn J. Pittman to work at the second busiest court in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. While she was still in training, Pittman’s trainer and supervisor allegedly complained that Pittman was too old to work in the department and could not “see well enough.” Approximately one month later, Pittman was terminated on the “pretext” that she was “making too many mistakes.” She was replaced by a younger employee.

Age discrimination against employees and job applicants who are age 40 or older is a violation of the ADEA. The EEOC sued under the ADEA on Pittman’s behalf. In moving to dismiss,  the defendant contended that the 11th Amendment (which bars suits in federal court against states by their own citizens absent a valid waiver of state sovereign immunity) required dismissal. Citing Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62 (2000), the state court argued that the 11th Amendment precluded the EEOC’s ADEA suit, arguing that the federal discrimination law does not apply in a dispute with a state or state agency.

In Kimel, the Supreme Court held that the ADEA was not a valid exercise of Congress’s power to enforce the 14th Amendment and, therefore, a state has 11th Amendment immunity from an individual plaintiff’s ADEA suit for damages in federal court. According to the federal district court though, Kimel does not mean that the ADEA is inapplicable to state employers. Rather, the court held that Kimel merely stands for the proposition that the ADEA’s substantive provisions cannot be enforced against a state in a civil action brought by private parties. Since the EEOC is not a private party, it may sue a state employer under the ADEA.


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