LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Legal Newsline) – The Arkansas Supreme Court has reversed an order by a circuit court after an appeal from Arkansas Community Correction (ACC) citing sovereign immunity in an Arkansas Whistleblower Act case.
ACC argued that it was exempt from the suit based on sovereign immunity. ACC filed for summary judgment and was denied by the Pulaski County Circuit Court. ACC appealed the decision and found itself in the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Annette Barnes, an employee at ACC, filed suit against the entity after she was terminated. She claims she lost her job because she protested the discriminatory actions of her employer and took part in an investigation about the discrimination, according to the court opinion from Associate Justice Shawn A. Womack.
In her complaint, Barnes claims she is protected by the Arkansas Whistleblower Act and that her termination was a direct violation of the Act. In her suit, she asked for damages, reinstatement, attorney fees, costs and all other relief, as reported in Womack's April 12 opinion.
The meat of the ACC’s appeal deals with sovereign immunity as the state agency claims that the Arkansas Whistleblower Act (AWBA) has no bearing on it and that it is immune from the lawsuit with Barnes.
In the court opinion, several issues were raised with dissenting and asserting viewpoints on whether ACC's allegations complied with Article 5, Section 20 of the state Constitution.
"Article 5, Section 20 provides that '[t]he State of Arkansas shall never be made defendant in any of her courts,'” the opinion states.
"ACC was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and the circuit court erred when it denied ACC’s motion for judgment on the pleadings based on sovereign immunity. We emphasize here, as in (Bd. of Trs. v. Andrews) the General Assembly’s choice to abrogate sovereign immunity in the AWBA is prohibited by the constitution. We hold that it is. We therefore reverse and dismiss the case," the opinion states.
Judge Josephine Linker Hart wrote in her dissenting opinion, “It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that the drafters of the 1874 constitution…intended to guarantee the rights enumerated in Article 2… and then simultaneously intended to take away the people’s ability to judicially enforce those rights with Article 5, Section 20.”
Linker Hart stated that the majority's discussion and disposition "deprives Annette Barnes, and hereafter all the people of this state, of access to their state courts to redress wrongs perpetrated at the hands of the state government."
The court used Article 5, Section 20 as the guideline for the case and drew the conclusion that ACC did not provide enough argument to its position, rather relying on the constitution to speak for itself. The dissenting opinion of Linker Hart maintained that the court should review each article of the constitution in its entirety and not assume that the founders meant for provisions to be ignored or disregarded based on other provisions.
“Punishing Barnes, the appellee and prevailing party below, because the trial court did not go into great detail in rejecting an argument presented by the state, the appellant seeking reversal of the trial court’s decision is absolutely contrary to this court’s prejudice,” Linker Hart stated in the court opinion.