Virginia Lawyers Weekly//September 19, 2023
Virginia Lawyers Weekly//September 19, 2023//
Where the former General Registrar of the City of Lynchburg alleged that two members of the Lynchburg Electoral Board voted not to reappoint her because of political patronage, such a decision constitutes an ongoing violation of federal law that falls squarely within the ambit of Ex parte Young.
Betty Ann Gibbs and Steven Troxel, two of three members of the Lynchburg Electoral Board, voted not to reappoint Christine Gibbons as General Registrar of the City of Lynchburg when her term expired June 30, 2023. Gibbons contends that the decision not to reappoint her was based on political patronage in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Gibbons seeks preliminary and permanent injunctive relief against the Board and Gibbs and Troxel in their official capacities for reinstatement as the City of Lynchburg General Registrar. She also seeks money damages against Gibbs and Troxel in their individual capacities. Defendants moved to dismiss the Board and the official capacity claims on the basis that this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under the Eleventh Amendment.
Gibbons urges that “nothing of substance is gained or lost for either side by allowing the Board entity to remain as a defendant.” Not so. As local electoral boards are considered state agencies, the suit against the Lynchburg Electoral Board is a suit against the state, and thus, the Eleventh Amendment divests this court of subject matter jurisdiction over the electoral board as a “state instrumentality.” I dismiss the complaint against the Board.
Gibbs and Troxel
An official capacity suit against a state officer which seeks retrospective relief (money damages) for a violation of federal law is barred under the Eleventh Amendment. An exception to this general rule exists in suits against a state officer acting in their official capacity which seeks prospective relief from an ongoing violation of federal law. Such an action is not a suit against the state for Eleventh Amendment purposes and the official does not have Eleventh Amendment immunity.
Here, Gibbons alleges that political motivations governed the decision not to reappoint her as general registrar. Such a decision constitutes an ongoing violation of federal law. Such a wrong falls squarely within the ambit of Ex parte Young.
Defendants assert that Ex parte Young does not apply here because “neither Gibbs nor Troxel is independently possessed of the capacity to impose the relief [Gibbons] seeks.” The essence of this argument is that Gibbs and Troxel each only have one vote toward Board decisions, and one vote is insufficient to direct Board action. Defendants rely upon two recent opinions in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Ex parte Young, however, contemplates an official-capacity action against an official involving an ongoing violation of federal law. The Board members—being the officials responsible for decisions to reappoint a general registrar—are proper defendants as Ex parte Young exists to ensure that officials vested with that power comply with the Constitution.
Defendants’ motion to dismiss granted in part, denied in part.
Gibbons v. Gibbs, Case No. 6:23-cv-00035, Aug. 25, 2023. WDVA at Lynchburg (Ballou). VLW 023-3-513. 11 pp.