Instant Analysis: Sossamon v. Texas

April 20th, 2011

In a 6-2 opinion in Sossamon v. Texas, Justice Thomas found that States, in accepting federal funding, do not consent to waive their sovereign immunity to private suits for money damages under RLUIPA. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Breyer, dissented. Justice Kagan recused.

Majority Opinion

Thomas found that waivers of sovereign immunity should be “strictly construed.” RLUIPA’s authorization of “appropriate relief against a government,” is not an unequivocal expression of state consent.

“Appropriate relief” is open-ended and ambiguous about the relief it includes. “Appropriate” is inherently context-dependent. And the context here—where the defendant is a sovereign—suggests, if anything, that monetary damages are not “suitable” or “proper.” See Federal Maritime Comm’n v. South Carolina Ports Authority, 535
U. S. 743, 765. Further, where a statute is susceptible of multiple plausible interpretations, including one preserving immunity, this Court will not consider a State to have waived its sovereign immu nity. Sossamon’s and Texas’ conflicting plausible arguments about whether immunity is preserved here demonstrate that “appropriate relief” in RLUIPA is not so free from ambiguity that the Court may conclude that the States, by receiving federal funds, have unequivo cally expressed intent to waive their immunity.

The Court also rejected the argument that because the legislation was passed pursuing to the Spending Clause (and not the 14th amendment, see Boerne v. Flores), traditional contract doctrine of breach and damages do not apply.

Sossamon mistakenly contends that Congress’ enactment of RLUIPA §3 pursuant to the Spending Clause put the States on notice that they would be liable for damages because Spending Clause legislation operates as a contract and damages are always available for abreach of contract. While acknowledging the contract-law analogy,this Court has been clear “not [to] imply . . . that suits under Spending Clause legislation are suits in contract, or that contract-law principles apply to all issues that they raise,” Barnes, supra, at 188, n. 2, or to rely on that analogy to expand liability beyond what would existunder nonspending statutes, much less to extend monetary liabilityagainst the States. Applying ordinary contract principles here wouldalso make little sense because contracts with a sovereign are unique: They do not traditionally confer a right of action for damages to enforce compliance. More fundamentally, Sossamon’s implied-contract remedy cannot be squared with the rule that a sovereign immunitywaiver must be expressly and unequivocally stated in the relevantstatute’s text.

All these footnotes added in the relatively short majority opinion (14 pages) tell me that Thomas needed to add a lot of stuff at the last minute to keep the 6 member majority happy.

Sotomayor’s Dissenting Opinion

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent finds the phrase “appropriate relief” unambiguous—it refers to monetary damages—and focuses on how the majority’s opinion “undermines the ‘broad protection of religious exercise’” of RLUIPA. There is very little discussion of sovereign immunity, or as Justice Thomas puts it in a footnote, “this Court’s precedents regarding waiver of sovereign immunity, which the dissent gives astonishingly short shrift.”

The Court holds that the term “appropriate relief” is too ambiguous to provide States with clear notice that theywill be liable for monetary damages under the ReligiousLand Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq. I disagree. No one disputes that, in accepting federal funds, the States consent to suit for violations of RLUIPA’s substantive provisions; the only question is what relief isavailable to plaintiffs asserting injury from such violations. That monetary damages are “appropriate relief” is,in my view, self-evident. Under general remedies principles, the usual remedy for a violation of a legal right isdamages. Consistent with these principles, our precedents make clear that the phrase “appropriate relief” includes monetary relief. By adopting a contrary reading of the term, the majority severely undermines the “broad protection of religious exercise” Congress intended the statute toprovide. §2000cc–3(g). For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.

Sotomayor makes a strong point, asking “why the phrase “appropriate relief” would provide adequate notice as to equitable remedies [which the majority found were permissible] but not as to monetary ones.” From a perspective of remedies Sotomayor is probably right:

The majority suggests that equitable relief is the sole “appropriate relief” for statutory violations “where the defendant is a sovereign.” Ante, at 6–7. There can be little doubt, however, that the “appropriateness” of relief to be afforded a civil plaintiff is generally determined by the nature of the injury to his legal rights

Part II of the opinion may as well have been written by Justice Breyer, focusing heavily on the purpose behind RLIUIPA.

There is another reason to question the soundness of today’s decision. The Court’s reading of §2000cc–2(a) severely undermines Congress’ unmistakably stated intent in passing the statute: to afford “broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of [the statute] and the Constitution.” §2000cc–3(g).I find it improbable that, in light of this express statutory purpose and the history of “long-running congressional efforts to accord religious exercise heightened protection from government-imposed burdens,”

Sotomayor equates the majority’s opinion with forcing litigants to litigate with one hand tied behind their back. In many cases, prospective relief is inadequate.

It is difficult to believe that Congress would have devoted such care and effort to establishing significant statutory protections for religious exercise and specifically extended those protections to persons in state institutions, yet withheld from plaintiffs a crucial tool for securing the rights the statute guarantees.
By depriving prisoners of a damages remedy for violations of their statutory rights, the majority ensures that plaintiffs suing state defendants under RLUIPA will be forced to seek enforcement of those rights with one hand tied behind their backs. Most obviously, the majority’s categorical denial of monetary relief means that a plaintiff who prevails on the merits of his claim that a State has substantially burdened his religious exercise will often be denied redress for the injury he has suffered, because in many instances “prospective relief accords . . . no remedy at all.” . . . Injunctive relief from a federal court may address a violation going forward, but this fact will be of cold comfort to the victims of serious, nonrecurring violations for which equitable relief may be inappropriate.