Constitutionally-based immunity is not absolute, with about as many exceptions to "sovereign" immunity as there were original colonies. Constitution ‘Rolls’ Former Crimson Tide Coach Price

Every American needs a good lesson in constitutional law – even those who limit their daily readings to the sports section. This spring, Martha Burk got some legal schooling when she unsuccessfully ran a very public, and lonely, protest against Augusta National Golf Club’s constitutionally protected right to operate as a private club under the First Amendment. Now, Former Alabama Coach Mike Price – fired from his multi-million dollar coaching position over claims of drunken behavior – got his constitutional lesson this week when most of his $20 million lawsuit against the Crimson Tide was dismissed on the states’ rights protections found in the Eleventh Amendment.

Well sports fans, you can stop scratching your heads (or other body parts) and read on to learn more about Coach Price’s constitutional case.

The Eleventh Amendment, the first amendment ratified after the Bill of Rights, generally bars a claim by a private citizen for money damages against a state. Despite its literal text, that "[t]he Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State," the Eleventh Amendment has evolved since its passage in 1795 to also bar suits by citizens against their own state without the state’s consent.

Constitutionally-based immunity is not absolute, with about as many exceptions to "sovereign" immunity as there were original colonies. These exceptions include viable lawsuits if the state voluntarily consents through a statute, or if Congress, through its spending power should condition receipt of federal funds upon the states’ voluntary consent to private suit or a suit brought by a private individual against a state officer in his individual capacity for injunctive or declaratory relief (an Ex parte Young action), to name just a few.

Nevertheless, despite these exceptions, sovereign immunity still extends its protective shield far beyond the governor’s mansion and the capitol building. Instead, sovereign immunity, in theory and practice, protects all the arms of state government, including state universities, as Price discovered.

Like any other plaintiff bringing suit for money damages against the state, Price had the burden of proving the State – Alabama, in the form of the University of Alabama – had waived its immunity. At least with respect to the bulk of his claims, he appears to have failed. Price may, however, be successful with his due process claims if he can show that he was under contract with the University. Judicial precedent recognizes that governmental entities enjoy a limited degree of sovereign immunity where a contract or quasi-contract claim exists.

U.S. District Judge L. Scott Coogler of the Northern District of Alabama ruled during a hearing that the University of Alabama and its trustees were immune from suit and that President Robert Witt was immune in his official capacity, all for the reason of the Eleventh Amendment. And consistent with traditional exceptions, Judge Coogler ruled, at least initially, that claims for fraud, breach of contract and other alleged wrongdoing against Witt in his individual capacity could continue.

Judge Coogler ordered further briefing on other parts of the lawsuit as well. These include whether Price should have been given formal notice about his possible dismissal, whether he should have been afforded a hearing and whether he should have had an opportunity to appeal his dismissal. The University maintains that Coach Price had not signed his contract and therefore could be fired at any time.

Even without ever coaching a game as Alabama’s head coach against the Crimson Tide’s rival, Florida State University, Coach Price was scalped by the Seminoles. Quite ironically, one of the most recent cases to boost states’ sovereign immunity position in our federal system is the 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Seminole Tribe v. Florida. And, by the way, Price’s firing for conduct inconsistent with university policy happened soon after questions surfaced about his behavior while attending a golf tournament in Seminole country – Pensacola, Florida.

September 25, 2003
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