The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided that mass transit agency SEPTA is not
entitled to sovereign immunity because it is not an “arm” of the commonwealth, and therefore can face suit by employees of its Regional Rail Division who assert violations of the Federal Employees Liability Act.
In a majority opinion penned by Justice Debra Todd, the high court determined that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority cannot be deemed an arm of the commonwealth and is therefore not immune from civil suit under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The justices had taken up the consolidated cases of Errol Davis, Marjorie Goldman, Edmund Wiza and Michael McGuire, who had individually sued SEPTA in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court over allegations that they were injured during the course and scope of their employment with the agency’s Regional Rail Division.
SEPTA, created in the early 1960s through the Metropolitan Transportation Authorities Act, serves Philadelphia and four surrounding Pennsylvania suburban counties, although its Regional Rail Division also ventures into the neighboring states of Delaware and New Jersey.
The Supreme Court opinion says that employees of SEPTA’s Regional Rail Division have been covered by the Federal Employees Liability Act since 1983, the same year that the public transportation agency assumed responsibility for providing passenger rail services formerly provided by Conrail.
Because FELA provides for concurrent jurisdiction between state and federal courts for all actions brought thereunder, all four lawsuits in this case sought recovery from SEPTA pursuant to FELA, asserting SEPTA’s negligence in the causation of the plaintiffs’ respective bodily injuries, the opinion states.
After the plaintiffs filed their respective lawsuits, SEPTA filed a motion seeking judgment on the pleadings; the agency claimed it was a state agency immune from suit under the doctrine of sovereign immunity.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro subsequently denied the motions.
SEPTA again filed for summary judgment, arguing that it was immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it considered itself an arm of the state.
The plaintiffs then filed a joint motion for partial summary judgment seeking to dismiss or strike SEPTA’s affirmative immunity defenses.
Quinones Alejandro eventually denied SEPTA’s motion for summary judgment and granted the plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment.
The case ultimately went to trial in Philadelphia.
Davis, the lead plaintiff, was awarded a $740,000 jury verdict, although the trial court judge granted SEPTA’s post-trial motion seeking a new trial.
Davis appealed to Commonwealth Court, which ended up reversing the trial judge’s decision granting a new trial and directed the trial court to address the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of sovereign immunity.
The trial judge, Sheldon Jelin, soon granted the motion and entered summary judgment in favor of SEPTA.
Davis again appealed, as did the other plaintiffs.
Alejandro and Jelin ended up reaching different conclusions on the issue of sovereign immunity, with Alejandro determining that SEPTA was not an arm of the commonwealth, and Jelin deciding that SEPTA was entitled to sovereign immunity under Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Immunity Act.
In its opinion, the high court agreed with SEPTA that it has been statutorily classified by the legislature as an agency of the commonwealth.
However, the justices did not find that SEPTA is an “arm” of the commonwealth, because 10 of the 15 members of SEPTA’s governing board are appointed by local governments of the five counties that comprise its service area, with only five of the 15 members appointed by the commonwealth.
The justices wrote that the commonwealth has no power to unilaterally remove a board member which it did not appoint, and furthermore, that no provision of the MTAA confers upon either the governor or the state legislature the right to veto or otherwise unilaterally alter official actions taken by a majority of SEPTA’s board.
“The Commonwealth’s ability to exercise its official power over SEPTA Board actions is, thus, constrained by the limited proportional representation on SEPTA’s Board afforded to the executive and legislative branches of the Commonwealth,” the opinion states. “Therefore, given this limited power of appointment and concomitant lack of ability of the Commonwealth to veto or officially alter Board action, the SEPTA Board cannot be deemed subject to state direction or control.”
The justices also determined that SEPTA possesses the ability to independently raise revenue on its own, and is therefore not dependent on the approval or financial backing of the commonwealth, which also points against the finding that the agency is an arm of the state.
The high court’s opinion goes on to state that a FELA action against SEPTA in Pennsylvania state courts does not subject the commonwealth to any “indignity.” In other words, a FELA suit poses no “danger that the Commonwealth will be involuntarily ‘subject to and controlled by the mandates of judicial tribunals,’ without its consent, ‘at the instance of private parties.’”
The justices also determined that the commonwealth has no legal liability for a FELA judgment rendered against SEPTA.
“In sum, we discern no threat to the dignity of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania whenever a private individual commences a FELA suit in the courts of this commonwealth, nor do we find the treasury of the Commonwealth to be threatened by a FELA suit in our courts,” the opinion states. “Accordingly, we conclude SEPTA is not an arm of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and thus not entitled to claim immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.”
The justices remanded the cases to both Commonwealth Court and the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
Justice Todd was joined in the opinion by Chief Justice Ronald Castille, and Justices Thomas Saylor, J. Michael Eakin, Max Baer and Seamus McCaffery.
Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who is suspended from the bench pending her public corruption trial, did not participate in the decision.