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Davis v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority

August 10, 2009

ERROL DAVIS, APPELLANT
v.
SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY
MARJORIE GOLDMAN
v.
SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY
EDMUND WIZA
v.
SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY
MICHAEL J. MAGUIRE
v.
SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY
APPEAL OF: SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Butler

Argued: June 10, 2009

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge, HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, HONORABLE DORIS A. SMITH-RIBNER, Judge*fn1, HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge, HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge.

OPINION

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court) denying SEPTA's motion for summary judgment based upon a claim of sovereign immunity and granting the partial summary judgment motion filed by Marjorie Goldman, Edmund Wiza, and Michael J. Maguire (collectively Goldman) requesting the dismissal of SEPTA's affirmative defenses under the Eleventh Amendment, sovereign immunity, governmental immunity, and any other similar defenses. In addition, Errol Davis (Davis) appeals from an order of the trial court granting a motion for summary judgment filed by SEPTA. Both appeals present the same issue before this Court: whether the Commonwealth's sovereign immunity applies to SEPTA in claims brought in Pennsylvania courts under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA).*fn2 For reasons that follow, we reverse the trial court in Goldman v. SEPTA, and affirm the trial court in Davis v. SEPTA. We now hold that the sovereign immunity of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does indeed encompass SEPTA where claims are brought under FELA in the courts of this Commonwealth.

Marjorie Goldman, Edmund Wiza, and Michael J. Maguire filed individual complaints against SEPTA for injuries sustained as a result of their employment with SEPTA. In each case SEPTA filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings on the basis of sovereign immunity. The trial court consolidated the cases for the purpose of determining the sovereign immunity issue.

On January 24, 2008, an evidentiary hearing was held and the trial court denied SEPTA's motion for judgment on the pleadings. On July 31, 2008, SEPTA and Goldman filed cross motions for summary judgment addressing whether sovereign immunity applied to SEPTA in FELA claims. On December 24, 2008, the trial court denied SEPTA's motion for summary judgment and granted the partial summary judgment motion filed by Goldman requesting the dismissal of SEPTA's affirmative defenses under the Eleventh Amendment, sovereign immunity, governmental immunity, and any other similar defenses.

On January 22, 2009, the trial court granted SEPTA's motion to certify the December 24, 2008 order. On March 9, 2009, this Court granted SEPTA permission to appeal, and further ordered the appeal would be argued seriately with Davis v. SEPTA.

Errol Davis filed a complaint against SEPTA for injuries sustained as a result of his employment with SEPTA. Prior to trial, SEPTA filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis of sovereign immunity which was denied. Immediately prior to Davis' jury trial, SEPTA made another motion for summary judgment on the basis of sovereign immunity before the trial court, which the trial court did not address. The trial resulted in a jury verdict for Davis in the amount of $740,000.00. SEPTA filed a motion for a new trial on the basis of the trial court's failure to address the motion pertaining to sovereign immunity, which the trial court granted. Davis appealed that order to this Court.

On April 21, 2008, this Court vacated the trial court's order and remanded the case to the trial court for further findings and conclusions with respect to the motion for summary judgment on the basis of sovereign immunity. On January 8, 2009, the trial court granted SEPTA's motion for summary judgment on the basis of sovereign immunity and entered judgment in favor of SEPTA. Davis appealed that order to this Court.*fn3

Goldman argues that SEPTA does not enjoy the Commonwealth's sovereign immunity in FELA claims because SEPTA is not an arm of the State under the Eleventh Amendment. SEPTA argues that under Alden v. Maine (Alden), 527 U.S. 706 (1999), an Eleventh Amendment analysis is not in order because the United States Supreme Court has ruled that Congress does not have the constitutional power to preempt the application of state law in legislation such as FELA, which is founded upon the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.*fn4 Thus, such legislation does not preempt the state law that defines which entities are to be considered sovereign and the sovereign immunity granted to those entities. SEPTA contends that under Pennsylvania law, SEPTA is clearly entitled to sovereign immunity. We agree that under Pennsylvania Law, SEPTA is protected by the Commonwealth's sovereign immunity.

In Alden, after noting its prior holding in Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996), that "Congress lacks power under Article I [of the U.S. Constitution] to abrogate the States' sovereign immunity from suits commenced or prosecuted in the federal courts[,]" the Supreme Court of the United States further held, "that the powers delegated to Congress under Article I . . . [also] do not include the power to subject non-consenting States to private suits for damages in state courts." Alden, 527 U.S. at 712 (emphasis added). In so holding, the Court noted:

Congress has vast power but not all power. When Congress legislates in matters affecting the States, it may not treat these sovereign entities as mere prefectures or corporations. Congress must accord States the esteem due to them as joint participants in a federal system, one beginning with the premise of sovereignty in both the central Government and the separate States. Congress has ample means to ensure compliance with valid federal laws, but it must respect the sovereignty of the States.

Id. at 758. Accordingly, the Court held that the State of Maine was not subject to suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938*fn5 in its own courts in light of Maine's sovereign immunity.

It is important to note for our purposes here, that there is no distinction between "Eleventh Amendment Immunity" and State sovereign immunity. The phrase is actually a misnomer as, "the sovereign immunity of the States neither derives from, nor is limited by, the terms of the Eleventh Amendment." Id. at 713. The Eleventh Amendment simply states: "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 . . . ." U.S. Const. amend. XI. However, the immunity of a State, specifically the immunity of this Commonwealth, "is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty which the States enjoyed before the ratification of the Constitution, and which they [generally] retain today . . . ." Alden, 527 U.S. at 713. And, as conceded by the U.S. Supreme Court in Alden, this sovereign immunity extends to subordinate entities to the extent that such entity is "an arm of the State." Id. at 756.

Correspondingly, in Hess v. Port Auth. Trans-Hudson Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court intimated that a State's immunity extends to agencies of the State when that State purposely structures the agency to enable it to enjoy the State's immunity. 513 U.S. 30, 43-44 (1994). The Court noted its general approach of presuming that agencies do not qualify for Eleventh Amendment immunity: "'[u]nless there is good reason to believe that the State[] structured the new agency to enable it to enjoy the special constitutional protection of the State[ itself] . . . .'" Hess, 513 U.S. at 43-44 (quoting Lake Country Estates, Inc. v. Tahoe Reg'l Planning Agency, 440 U.S. 391 (1979)) (emphasis added).*fn6 Where an agency is formed pursuant to the sovereign power of a single State, subordinate agencies may enjoy the special constitutional protection of the State itself whenever the State intentionally and expressly structures an agency to enable it to enjoy the State's constitutional protection. That is precisely the nature of the matter now before us, as we are called upon to determine whether SEPTA enjoys the Commonwealth's immunity from suit pursuant to FELA in the courts of this Commonwealth.

It is critical to note that SEPTA has a unique enabling statute which explicitly establishes SEPTA as a Commonwealth party which enjoys the Commonwealth's sovereign immunity. Specifically, Section 1711 of the Metropolitan Transportation Authorities Act*fn7 (Act), states in pertinent part: "An authority shall in no way be deemed to be an instrumentality of any city or county or other municipality or engaged in the performance of a municipal function, but shall exercise the public powers of the Commonwealth as an agency and instrumentality thereof." 74 Pa.C.S. § 1711(a) (emphasis added). The Act further states:

It is hereby declared to be the intent of the General Assembly that an authority created or existing under this chapter . . . shall continue to enjoy sovereign and official immunity, as provided in 1 Pa.C.S. § 2310 (relating to sovereign immunity reaffirmed; specific waiver), and shall remain immune from suit except as provided by and subject to the provision of 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 8501 (relating to definitions) through 8528 (relating to limitations on damages).

74 Pa.C.S. § 1711(c)(3) (emphasis added).

Without question, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania holds considerable interest in ensuring that SEPTA has the Commonwealth's constitutional protection as an arm of the Commonwealth. SEPTA's enabling statute provides that SEPTA: shall exercise the public powers of the Commonwealth as an agency and instrumentality thereof [and] shall exist for the purpose of planning, acquiring, holding, constructing, improving, maintaining, operating . . . and otherwise functioning with respect to a transportation system . . . .

74 Pa.C.S. § 1711(a) (emphasis added). This transportation system is purposed to operate for the benefit of citizens of the Commonwealth and ultimately the Commonwealth itself, as SEPTA is the Commonwealth's Authority providing public transportation in and around the Commonwealth's largest metropolitan area. We have no doubt that SEPTA plays a substantial role in providing transportation for the area's workforce, to and from their various places of employment, thus contributing substantially to the generation of the Commonwealth's revenue. Consistently, in carrying out its functions, SEPTA wields the power of eminent domain "to acquire private property and property devoted to any public use which is necessary for the purposes of the authority . . . ." 74 Pa.C.S. § 1744(b)(1). The power of eminent domain itself is indicative of government function. The broad responsibility of the Authority, and the extensive powers granted by the Commonwealth to effectuate its function, clearly evidence SEPTA's status in operating as an arm of the Commonwealth. Thus, an examination of SEPTA's unique enabling legislation along with execution thereof unquestionably reveals the intent of the General Assembly to give SEPTA the constitutional protection of the Commonwealth.

Further, the Commonwealth itself provides funding for SEPTA in amounts totaling over three quarters of a billion dollars per year, over 50% of SEPTA's operating and capital budgets. Specifically, money received and money budgeted to be received by SEPTA from the Commonwealth under the Act is as follows:

Fiscal YearCombined Operating and Capital BudgetsState SubsidyPercentage of total Combined Budgets 2010$1,549,844,000.00$793,064,000.0051.1% ...


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