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BRYANT v. NEW JERSEY DOT

May 18, 1998

LILLIAN E. BRYANT, LILLIAN W. BRYANT, CARL BRISCOE, GUSTAVIA ELLIS, PIERRE HOLLINGSWORTH, MICHAEL F. JOHNSON, ELWOOD S. DAVIS, FIRST WARD CIVIC ASSOCIATION, THIRD WARD CIVIC ASSOCIATION and WEST SIDE PROTECTIVE HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION, Plaintiffs,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, SOUTH JERSEY TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, MIRAGE RESORTS INCORPORATED, NEW JERSEY TRANSPORTATION TRUST FUND AUTHORITY and CASINO REINVESTMENT DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ORLOFSKY

OPINION

 ORLOFSKY, District Judge:

 The plaintiffs filed this action to prevent the construction of a highway and tunnel through their neighborhood which will require the condemnation of several homes and will allegedly cause flooding, noise and traffic problems. The plaintiffs claim that this project will have a disparate impact on their predominantly African-American community in violation of United States Department of Transportation regulations promulgated pursuant to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits racial discrimination by entities receiving federal funds. This case has already given rise to several novel and complex legal issues and two published decisions. *fn1"

 The State of New Jersey, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund Authority, the South Jersey Transportation Authority and the Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority have moved to dismiss this suit on the basis of Eleventh Amendment immunity or, in the alternative, have asked this Court to abstain from exercising federal jurisdiction over this controversy in favor of state eminent domain proceedings. Congress has expressly abrogated state sovereign immunity from suits filed under Title VI. *fn2" Therefore, the defendants' motion directly challenges the constitutionality of that abrogation provision. For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that the congressional abrogation of the states' Eleventh Amendment immunity under Title VI is constitutional, and that abstention is not warranted under the circumstances of this case. Consequently, the motion of these defendants will be denied.

 I. BACKGROUND

 Lillian E. Bryant, Lillian W. Bryant, Carl Briscoe, Gustavia Ellis, Pierre Hollingsworth, Michael F. Johnson, Elwood S. Davis, the First Ward Civic Association, the Third Ward Civic Association and the West Side Protective Homeowners Association (collectively "Plaintiffs") filed this action against the State of New Jersey, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund Authority, the South Jersey Transportation Authority (collectively the "State Defendants"), the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority ("CRDA") and Mirage Resorts, Inc. ("Mirage"). The factual allegations contained in the Amended Complaint have been outlined in my first opinion in this case, and will not be repeated here. See Bryant v. New Jersey Department of Transportation ("Bryant I"), 987 F. Supp. 343, 345-46 (D.N.J. 1998).

 In Bryant I, I determined that the Department of Transportation's regulations implementing Title VI could support Plaintiffs' private cause of action for disparate impact discrimination. See id. at 348. Nevertheless, I dismissed the Amended Complaint for lack of standing under the "Simpson Doctrine" which required that Title VI plaintiffs be the intended beneficiaries of, participants in, or applicants for federal financial assistance. See id. at 352. In light of a Supreme Court opinion issued several days after I decided Bryant I, however, I reconsidered my decision and concluded that the so-called "intended beneficiary" doctrine was no longer a valid interpretation of the zone of interests protected by Title VI. See Bryant v. New Jersey Department of Transportation ("Bryant II"), F. Supp. , 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3321, 1998 WL 133758 (D.N.J. Mar. 18, 1998) (interpreting National Credit Union Administration v. First National Bank & Trust Co., 140 L. Ed. 2d 1, 118 S. Ct. 927 (1998)). Consequently, pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, I vacated my prior order dismissing Plaintiffs' Title VI claim and reinstated this action.

 The reinstatement of Plaintiffs' claim now requires that I decide the dispositive motions which had originally been filed by the State Defendants, CRDA and Mirage prior to my decision in Bryant I. During a hearing on March 27, 1998, however, Mirage withdrew its motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint. See Transcript of Hearing before Hon. Stephen M. Orlofsky (dated Mar. 27, 1998) at 4, 21. At the same hearing, and with the consent of Plaintiffs, I dismissed Plaintiffs' claims against CRDA without prejudice because of the absence of any evidence that CRDA had played a role in deciding where to locate the highway and tunnel. See id. at 26. That rendered CRDA's motion for judgment on the pleadings moot, and left pending only the motion of the State Defendants to dismiss the Amended Complaint. *fn3"

 As I explain below, the motion of the State Defendants to dismiss Plaintiffs' claim on Eleventh Amendment grounds directly calls into question the constitutionality of a congressional statute, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-7, insofar as it abrogates state sovereign immunity under Title VI. Therefore, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2403(a), I certified this issue to the Attorney General of the United States of America. *fn4" On April 15, 1998, I granted the motion of the United States to intervene in this case to allow the government to defend the constitutionality of § 2000d-7 against the State Defendants' Eleventh Amendment challenge.

 II. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARD

 The State Defendants have moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Technically, this motion must be treated as a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) because each of the State Defendants has answered the Amended Complaint. See Turbe v. Virgin Islands, 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991); Borough of Sayreville v. Union Carbide Corp., 923 F. Supp. 671, 675 (D.N.J. 1996); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(2) ("A defense of failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted ... may be made ... by motion for judgment on the pleadings."). A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, however, even when presented as a motion for judgment on the pleadings, should be evaluated by the familiar standards of Rule 12(b)(6). See Turbe, 938 F.2d at 428; Union Carbide, 923 F. Supp. at 675.

 That inquiry generally requires that I "accept as true the factual allegations in the amended complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them, and to refrain from granting a dismissal unless it is certain that no relief can be granted under any set of facts which could be proved." Fuentes v. South Hills Cardiology, 946 F.2d 196, 201 (3d Cir. 1991) (citing Ransom v. Marrazzo, 848 F.2d 398, 401 (3d Cir. 1988)); see Schuylkill Energy Resources, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Power & Light Co., 113 F.3d 405, 412 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 139 L. Ed. 2d 335, 118 S. Ct. 435 (1997). However, "Rule 12(b)(6) authorizes a court to dismiss a claim on the basis of a dispositive issue of law." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326-27, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338, 109 S. Ct. 1827 (1989); accord Mruz v. CARING, Inc., 991 F. Supp. 701, 1998 WL 35379, *4 (D.N.J. 1998).

 III. SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY

 The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution provides: "The 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." U.S. Const. amend. XI. Since Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 33 L. Ed. 842, 10 S. Ct. 504 (1890), the Supreme Court has interpreted the Eleventh Amendment to bar claims in federal court against a state by its own citizens, thus applying the bar in both diversity and federal-question cases. See, e.g., Idaho v. Coeur d' Alene Tribe of Idaho, 138 L. Ed. 2d 438, 117 S. Ct. 2028, 2033 (1997). *fn5"

 Subject to the conditions described in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 134 L. Ed. 2d 252, 116 S. Ct. 1114 (1996), however, Congress may abrogate state sovereign immunity and thereby subject states to suit in federal court. *fn6" To determine whether Congress has properly abrogated the State Defendants' sovereign immunity, I must answer two questions: (1) has Congress "unequivocally expressed its intent to abrogate the immunity;" and (2) has Congress done so "pursuant to a valid exercise of power." Seminole Tribe, 517 U.S. at 55 (quoting Green v. Mansour, 474 U.S. 64, 68, 88 L. Ed. 2d 371, 106 S. Ct. 423 (1985)). I will address these questions in turn. See Seminole Tribe, 517 U.S. at 71 n.15 ("both the doctrine requiring avoidance of constitutional questions, and principles of federalism, require us always to apply the clear statement rule before we consider the constitutional question whether Congress has the power to abrogate").

 A. Congressional Intent

 In 1986, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986, Pub. L. 99-506, 100 Stat. 1845, which provide in part:

 
A State shall not be immune under the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States from suit in Federal court for a violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the provisions of any other Federal statute prohibiting discrimination by recipients of Federal financial assistance.

 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-7(a)(1) (emphasis added). There can be no question that this expresses the clear and unequivocal intent of Congress to abrogate state sovereign immunity under Title VI. See Lane v. Pena, 518 U.S. 187, 197-98, 135 L. Ed. 2d 486, 116 S. Ct. 2092 (1996); Middlebrooks v. University of Maryland at College Park, 980 F. Supp. 824, 827-28 (D. Md. 1997).

 B. Congressional Authority

 In Seminole Tribe, the Supreme Court held that Article I of the United States Constitution could not authorize Congress to abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity because the Eleventh Amendment had been adopted after the ratification of Article I. The Fourteenth Amendment, however, unlike Article I, was adopted subsequent to the Eleventh Amendment and therefore "operated to alter the pre-existing balance between state and federal power achieved by Article III and the Eleventh Amendment." See Seminole Tribe, 517 at 65-66. Consequently, after Seminole Tribe, "the only remaining source of congressional power to abrogate states' Eleventh Amendment immunity is the Fourteenth Amendment." Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Co. v. Public Utility Commission of Pennsylvania, 141 F.3d 88, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6763, 1998 WL 146681, *2 (3d Cir. 1998); accord College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board, 131 F.3d 353, 358 (3d Cir. 1997). *fn7" The validity of Title VI's abrogation provision, therefore, depends upon whether § 2000d-7 was passed pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment. *fn8"

 In the wake of Seminole Tribe, courts have expressed some dismay at the lack of guidance provided in that decision as to the appropriate method for determining whether an abrogation provision was enacted under the authority of the Fourteenth Amendment. See, e.g., Hurd v. Pittsburg State University, 109 F.3d 1540, 1545 (10th Cir. 1997) ("Although Seminole Tribe requires courts to ascertain that Congress exercised valid legislative authority, Seminole Tribe articulates no particular method for determining the source of that authority."); Timmer v. Michigan Department of Commerce, 104 F.3d 833, 841-42 (6th Cir. 1997) ("Seminole Tribe says nothing about the situation presented here where there is a question about whether Congress legislated pursuant to an unstated Constitutional provision.").

 During the pendency of this motion, however, the Third Circuit resolved two aspects of the Seminole Tribe analysis which, in combination, are dispositive of the Eleventh Amendment issue presented in this case. See Wheeling, 1998 WL 146681. First, the Third Circuit determined that an abrogation of sovereign immunity was valid under Seminole Tribe so long as the statute "could reasonably" have been authorized by the Fourteenth Amendment, regardless of whether Congress actually intended to invoke that authority. See id. at *2-3 (quoting Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448, 477, 65 L. Ed. 2d 902, 100 S. Ct. 2758 (1980)); see also Franks v. Kentucky School for the Deaf, 142 F.3d 360, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 7850, 1998 WL 193177, *2 (6th Cir. 1998) ("The question is whether Congress actually had the authority to adopt the legislation pursuant to [the Fourteenth Amendment], not whether Congress correctly guessed the source of its authority."); Crawford v. Davis, 109 F.3d 1281, 1283 (8th Cir. 1997) ("As long as Congress had such authority as an objective matter, whether it also had the specific intent to legislate pursuant to that authority is irrelevant."); Doe v. University of Illinois, 138 F.3d 653, 659 (7th Cir. 1998) (following Crawford); In re Sacred Heart Hospital of Norristown, 133 F.3d 237, 244 (3d Cir. 1998) ("Congress need not recite the words 'section 5' or 'Fourteenth Amendment' or 'equal protection' when enacting laws pursuant to this power") (quotation omitted); College Savings Bank, 131 F.3d at 358 ("Congress is not required to discuss or explain explicitly the constitutional basis for laws that it enacts").

 Second, the Wheeling court found that Congress could reasonably have legislated under the authority of the Fourteenth Amendment where it sought to remedy discrimination. See Wheeling, 1998 WL 146681 at *4 (finding that the immunity abrogation provision of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976, 49 U.S.C. § 11501, was Fourteenth Amendment legislation under Seminole Tribe based upon "evidence in section 11051's legislative history and judicially-recognized anti-discrimination purpose"); see also id. (interpreting Wilson-Jones v. Caviness, 99 F.3d 203 (6th Cir. 1996), amended by 107 F.3d 358 (6th Cir. 1997), to permit courts to uphold such legislation where "Congress made findings that a particular group ...


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