Third Circuit: Trial court correct in citing Eleventh Amendment to bar case against state Department of Welfare

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jun 1, 2016

PHILADELPHIA -- A per curiam decision rendered May 25 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit cited the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in continuing to bar a civil rights lawsuit in federal court, since the state was named as a defendant.

Judges D. Michael Fisher, Kent A. Jordan and Thomas I. Vanaskie opted to uphold a district court ruling preventing further hearing of Valerya McGriff’s complaint filed against the State Civil Service Commission and the State Department of Public Welfare, her former employer.

On Dec. 26, 2013, McGriff commenced an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 in the district court against the defendants. In the complaint, McGriff claimed on Aug. 2, 2011 the defendants “unlawfully terminated her in violation of her rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

In seeking injunctive relief, McGriff requested back pay and a “Notice of Termination/Removal,” which complied with internal regulations. McGriff further sought personal belongings mailed to her, which she claimed she was not allowed to retrieve upon her termination.

In response, the defendants moved to dismiss through immunity from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. On Dec. 18, 2014, the district court granted the motion and dismissed McGriff’s case. After McGriff timely moved for reconsideration, the district court denied her request, leading McGriff to appeal.

The Third Circuit believed the district court made no mistake in barring McGriff’s complaint due to constitutional preclusion.

“Upon review, we see no error in the District Court’s decision to dismiss the complaint,” the Third Circuit said. “It is well established that the Eleventh Amendment generally bars a civil rights suit in federal court that names the state as a defendant, even a claim seeking injunctive relief. While a state may consent to be sued in federal court, Pennsylvania has specifically withheld consent.”

The Third Circuit explained the Eleventh Amendment bar extends to the agencies named in the instant litigation, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and the State Civil Service Commission -- because they perform the “executive and administrative work of the Commonwealth.”

“Accordingly, the District Court correctly concluded that the Commonwealth Defendants are immune from this suit, and properly dismissed the complaint. The District Court also properly denied McGriff’s motion for reconsideration,” the Third Circuit concluded. “Because this appeal presents no substantial question, we will summarily affirm the District Court’s orders.”

The appellees are represented by Kathy Le of the Attorney General's Office, also in Philadelphia.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-2538

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:13-cv-07608

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at

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