Where a company sought to enjoin North Carolina state officials from citing the company for alleged workplace violations, on the basis the citations violated federal law, their suit may proceed. Because the officials were sued in their official capacity and the declaratory and injunctive relief sought was prospective, the officials were not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.
The North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Hazard Association, or NC OSHA, issued several itemized citations to Industrial Services Group, or ISG, following the on-site deaths of two ISG employees. Soon thereafter, ISG filed for declaratory and injunctive relief against two North Carolina state officials in their official capacities. ISG alleged that the issued citations were unlawful because they stemmed from North Carolina’s occupational health and safety plan, which in their view violates the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act.
The district court denied defendants’ motions to dismiss and for judgment on pleadings, holding, among other things, that they were not entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity because ISG’s claims satisfied the Ex Parte Young exception. Defendants challenge that conclusion. Defendants also argue—for the first time on appeal—that: (1) ISG lacks Article III standing and (2) the abstention doctrine bars federal courts from hearing this case because it is also being actively litigated in state proceedings.
‘Ex Parte Young’
In Ex Parte Young, the Supreme Court devised an exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity for suits brought against state officials. This exception “allows private citizens, in proper cases, to petition a federal court to enjoin State officials in their official capacities from engaging in future conduct that would violate the Constitution or a federal statute.”
To satisfy this exception, “a court need only conduct a straightforward inquiry into whether the complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.” The magistrate judge briefly determined that because ISG sued defendants in their official capacity and the declaratory and injunctive relief sought was prospective, “as to future actions NC OSHA may take against” the company, the suit appropriately met the Ex Parte Young exception, and defendants were not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.
On appeal, defendants contend that the district court erred in failing to dismiss on Eleventh Amendment immunity grounds because the North Carolina Department of Labor, or NCDOL, and therefore the state of North Carolina (rather than the named defendants) is the “real, substantial party in interest” and ISG’s requested relief is retrospective in nature.
These arguments fail. ISG properly alleges an ongoing or continuing violation of federal law and the relief ISG requests is prospective in nature. And NCDOL, and therefore the state of North Carolina, is not the true party in interest. The complaint does not seek action by North Carolina, but rather, by the named defendants who are at the helm of the NC state plan’s operation. Thus, Dobson and Beauregard were properly named as such in this suit.
Pendent appellate jurisdiction
Pendent appellate jurisdiction is exclusively available “(1) when an issue is ‘inextricably intertwined’ with a question that is the proper subject of an immediate appeal; or (2) when review of a jurisdictionally insufficient issue is ‘necessary to ensure meaningful review’ of an immediately appealable issue.”
Because a district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss on Eleventh Amendment immunity grounds is immediately appealable, this court’s consideration of defendants’ standing and abstention arguments thus hinges on whether those issues are “inextricably intertwined” with or “necessary to ensure meaningful review of” the Eleventh Amendment immunity claim. Because they are not, this court cannot exercise pendent appellate jurisdiction over those claims.
Defendants insist that the district court must abstain from hearing this case because it stems from the same set of circumstances and seeks some of the same relief; and the state-court decision, which is being actively litigated, would ultimately decide the validity of the citations issued. This court fails to see how the pendent abstention issue is “inextricably intertwined” with the immediately appealable issue here.
Industrial Services Group Inc. v. Dobson, Case No. 22-1465, May 16, 2023. 4th Cir. (Gregory), from WDNC at Asheville (Reidinger). Stacey Alayne Phipps for Appellants. Travis Wayne Vance for Appellee. VLW 023-2-130. 20 pp.