The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that County Departments of Education remain arms of the state and, as such, continue to be immune from lawsuits under the Eleventh Amendment.
In affirming a lower court ruling in Sato v. Orange County Department of Education, the panel of judges rejected the plaintiff’s contention that California Assembly Bill 97—which streamlined public education financing and decentralized education governance—revoked the Ninth Circuit’s 1992 holding in Belanger v. Madera Unified School District, which held that California school districts are entitled to sovereign immunity.
The lawsuit was filed by a former Orange County Department of Education employee who alleged that his termination violated his Fourteenth Amendment substantive and procedural due process rights and constituted a breach of contract. Both courts found that the Orange County Department of Education, as an arm of the state, was immune from the lawsuit under the Eleventh Amendment.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that although AB 97 reformed the financing and governance of California public schools in important ways, “it did not fundamentally alter the relationship between Offices of Education and the State of California.”
In his complaint, Sato alleged that, under his employment contract with the Orange County Department of Education, he could only be fired for cause, even during his initial one-year probationary period, and that his termination without prior notice or a pre- or post-termination hearing therefore violated his rights under Fourteenth Amendment and breached his contract—the courts obviously disagreed.