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National Association of Deaf v. State

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

January 3, 2020

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF THE DEAF, EDDIE I. SIERRA, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA, THE FLORIDA SENATE, THE HONORABLE BILL GALVANO, in his official capacity as President of the Florida Senate, THE FLORIDA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, THE HONORABLE JOSE OLIVA, in his official capacity as Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY BOARD OF TRUSTEES, the public body corporate acting for and behalf of Florida State University, JOHN THRASHER, in his official capacity as President of Florida State University, Defendants-Appellants.[†]

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 1:18-cv-21232-UU

          Before MARTIN, TJOFLAT, and TRAXLER, [*] Circuit Judges.

          MARTIN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Eddie Sierra, a resident of Florida, together with the National Association of the Deaf brought suit under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act against several Florida entities and officials. They challenge Defendants' failure to provide captioning for live and archived videos of Florida legislative proceedings. Defendants moved to dismiss, relying largely on sovereign immunity. The District Court denied Defendants' motions to dismiss, holding (1) that Congress validly abrogated Defendants' Eleventh Amendment immunity with respect to Plaintiffs' claims under Title II; (2) that the Pennhurst exception to Ex parte Young does not bar Plaintiffs' Title II claims for declaratory and injunctive relief against certain state officials; and (3) that it need not resolve whether sovereign immunity shielded the Florida House and Legislature from Plaintiffs' Rehabilitation Act claim at the motion to dismiss stage. After careful consideration, and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm.

         I. FACTS

         Eddie Sierra is a resident of South Florida. He is a concerned citizen interested in state legislative issues and a disability rights advocate. He is also deaf. The National Association of the Deaf (the "NAD") is an organization with members who are deaf or hard of hearing that advocates for the full and equal participation of its members in all aspects of society. Mr. Sierra is a member of the NAD, and together they ("Plaintiffs") brought suit against the State of Florida, the Florida Senate, the President of the Florida Senate in his official capacity, the Florida House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House of the Florida House of Representatives in his official capacity, the Florida State University Board of Trustees ("FSU"), and the President of Florida State University in his official capacity (collectively, "Defendants").[1]

         The dispute between the parties concerns access to videos of legislative proceedings in the Florida Senate and House of Representatives. The Senate and House each have websites that provide livestreaming of proceedings, as well as archived footage of past proceedings. These videos show the legislature receiving information and statements from the public, debating, negotiating, and voting on a host of issues. FSU also owns and operates a website (through its public broadcasting station, WFSU), that livestreams legislative proceedings and maintains archived recordings of the videos. In 2017, Plaintiffs sent a letter to the Florida Senate and House requesting they provide, among other services, captioning for these videos. To this date, Defendants have neither responded to this letter nor provided the requested captioning.

         Plaintiffs sued Defendants under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq. ("Title II" or "ADA"), and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants violated the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act by failing to put closed captions on both live and archived videos of sessions of the Florida legislature, because without them, people who are deaf and hard of hearing could not comprehend those videos. They further allege that Defendants intentionally discriminated against them on the basis of disability and that such discrimination denied them the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the democratic process. Plaintiffs seek money damages and declaratory and injunctive relief.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' Title II claims on the basis of sovereign immunity, arguing that Congress had not validly abrogated their sovereign immunity pursuant to its powers under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Defendants also asserted that the injunctions sought by Plaintiffs- i.e., to implement captioning-violated sovereign immunity because the legislature could remove the videos from the web at any time without violating federal law and, therefore, the injunction sought to force Defendants to do something that federal law does not require. The Legislative Defendants alone argued they were entitled to sovereign immunity with respect to Plaintiffs' Rehabilitation Act claim because they do not receive federal financial assistance, which is a prerequisite for liability under the Act.

         The District Court denied Defendants' motions in full. First, it held that Congress validly abrogated Defendants' sovereign immunity under Title II because (1) Defendants' failure to provide captioning implicated Plaintiffs' fundamental right to participate in the democratic process; (2) even if that fundamental right were not implicated, abrogation would be appropriate because Congress found pervasive discrimination by state governments against the deaf or hard of hearing; and (3) Title II was a congruent and proportional response to Congress's finding of pervasive discrimination. The District Court noted that adding captions was unlikely to be burdensome, and if it was, Defendants could assert Title II's affirmative defense of undue burden.

         Second, the District Court held that the Florida state officials named in Plaintiffs' complaint were not immune from claims for prospective injunctive relief under the doctrine of Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 28 S.Ct. 441 (1908).

         Third, the District Court denied the Legislative Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' Rehabilitation Act claim on sovereign immunity grounds. The Legislative Defendants attached to their motion to dismiss a declaration by a state employee averring that the Florida House and Senate had received no federal funds since 1999. The District Court declined to resolve the question of sovereign immunity because (1) the only evidence before it was a "self-serving" affidavit; and (2) the information regarding sources of financing was not likely to be available to Plaintiffs without discovery.

         Defendants filed this interlocutory appeal of the District Court's rulings under the collateral order doctrine and 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We first address our jurisdiction to hear this interlocutory appeal, and then take each issue in turn.

         III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews de novo issues of federal subject matter jurisdiction. Summit Med. Assocs., P.C. v. Pryor, 180 F.3d 1326, 1333 (11th Cir. 1999). "Similarly, a district court's denial of a motion to dismiss on Eleventh Amendment grounds is a question of law subject to de novo review." Id. at 1334. Last, "[w]hether the district court erred in reserving a ruling on Eleventh Amendment immunity is an issue involving the district court's supervision of litigation," and we review such decisions for an abuse of discretion. Bouchard Transp. Co. v. Fla. Dep't of Envtl. Prot., 91 F.3d 1445, 1448 (11th Cir. 1996) (per curiam).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. INTERLOCUTORY APPELLATE JURISDICTION

         "We must, as always, determine our own jurisdiction before proceeding further." Backe v. LeBlanc, 691 F.3d 645, 647 (5th Cir. 2012). Ordinarily, appellate courts have jurisdiction only over final decisions of a district court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1291. However, because "a state's Eleventh Amendment immunity is 'an entitlement not to stand trial or face the burdens of litigation, '" Bouchard, 91 F.3d at 1448 (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2815 (1985)), interlocutory orders that deny the Eleventh Amendment's guarantee of freedom from litigation are immediately appealable. See Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 525-27, 105 S.Ct. at 2815-16 (concluding that "the denial of a substantial claim of absolute immunity is an order appealable before final judgment, for the essence of absolute immunity is its possessor's entitlement not to have to answer for his conduct in a civil damages action"). We therefore have jurisdiction to hear Defendants' interlocutory appeal.

         B. SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY

         We must first decide whether Congress validly abrogated sovereign immunity with respect to Plaintiffs' Title II claims. Title II of the ADA states that "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any entity." 42 U.S.C. § 12132. Plaintiffs assert Defendants violated this provision by failing to provide captioning for online videos of legislative proceedings. The Eleventh Amendment bars a private citizen from suing a state, including a state official in her official capacity, for damages in federal court. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 3107 (1985). However, Congress may validly abrogate this immunity if (1) it "unequivocally express[es] its intent to abrogate," Kimel v. Fla. Bd. of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 73, 120 S.Ct. 631, 640 (2000), and (2) it possesses the power to effectuate its intent, Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509, 517, 124 S.Ct. 1978, 1985 (2004).

         Title II plainly expressed Congress's intent to abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity. See id. at 518, 124 S.Ct. at 1985 ("The Act specifically provides: 'A State shall not be immune under the eleventh amendment to the Constitution of the United States from an action in Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction for a violation of this chapter.'" (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12202)). Thus the relevant question becomes whether Congress had the power to effectuate its intent to abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity.

         In certain circumstances, Congress has the power to abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity pursuant to its powers under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. See Bd. of Trs. of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 364, 121 S.Ct. 955, 962 (2001). Section 5 authorizes Congress to enact "appropriate legislation" to enforce the substantive guarantees of Section 1 of the ...


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