Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy  v. James W. Stewart III, Commissioner, Virginia Department Of Behavioral Health And Developmental Services, Et Al.


The issue before the Supreme Court was whether Ex parte Young, 209 U. S. 123 (1908), allowed a federal court to hear a lawsuit for prospective relief against state officials brought by another agency of the same State.

The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000 (DD Act) offered States federal money to improve community services, such as medical care and job training, for individuals with developmental disabilities. As a condition of that funding, a State must establish a protection and advocacy (P&A) system “to protect and advocate the rights of individuals with developmental disabilities.” The P&A system received separate federal funds, paid to it directly. A second federal law, the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act (PAIMI Act), increase that separate funding and extended the mission of P&A systems to include the mentally ill.

Virginia was one of the eight States that had designated a government entity as their P&A system. The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy (VOPA) was an independent state agency. VOPA enjoy authority to litigate free of executive branch oversight. It operated independently of the Attorney General of Virginia and employed its own lawyers, who are statutorily authorized to sue on VOPA’s behalf. And Virginia law specifically empowered VOPA to “initiate any proceedings to secure the rights” of disabled individuals. In 2006, VOPA opened an investigation into the deaths of two patients and injuries to a third at state-run mental hospitals. It asked respondents—state officials in charge of those institutions—to produce any records related to risk-management or mortality reviews conducted by the hospitals with respect to those patients. Respondents refused, asserting that the records were protected by a state-law privilege shielding medical peer-review materials from disclosure.

VOPA then brought the present action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging that the DD and PAIMI Acts entitled it to the peer-review records, notwithstanding any state-law privilege that might apply. It sought a declaration that respondents’ refusal to produce the records violated the DD and PAIMI Acts, along with an injunction requiring respondents to provide access to the records and refrain in the future from interfering with VOPA’s right of access to them. Respondents moved to dismiss the action on the grounds that they were immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. The District Court denied the motion. In its view, the suit was permitted by the doctrine of Ex parte Young, which normally allowed federal courts to award prospective relief against state officials for violations of federal law. The Court of Appeals reversed. Virginia v. Reinhard, 568 F. 3d 110 (CA4 2009). Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Supreme Court disagreed with the respondents argument that entertaining VOPA’s lawsuit in a federal forum would infringe Virginia’s sovereign interests because it would diminish the dignity of a State for a federal court to adjudicate a dispute between its components.

The Court observed that there are limits on the Federal Government’s power to affect the internal operations of a State. But those limits must be found in some textual provision or structural premise of the Constitution. Additional limits could not be smuggled in under the Eleventh Amendment by barring a suit in federal court that did not violate the State’s sovereign immunity.

 In order to invoke the Ex parte Young exception to sovereign immunity, a state agency need two things: first, a federal right that it possesses against its parent State; and second, authority to sue other state officials to enforce that right, free from any internal veto wielded by the state government. Supreme Court observed that it was unaware that the necessary conditions had ever presented themselves except in connection with the DD and PAIMI Acts, and the parties had referred no examples. Thus, the apparent novelty of the sort of suit did not at all suggest its unconstitutionality. The Supreme Court was satisfied that the principles undergirding the Ex parte Young doctrine supported its application to actions of the present kind. The Supreme Court finally concluded that it was Virginia law that created VOPA and gave it the power to sue state officials. In that circumstance, the Eleventh Amendment presented no obstacle to VOPA’s ability to invoke federal jurisdiction on the same terms as any other litigant. The Court thus reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.