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Couser v. Gay.

No. 19-3088. D.Kan. Judge Matheson. Eleventh Amendment Immunity—42 USC § 1983 Official Capacity Claim—County Sheriff Status.

May 18, 2020

Following a traffic chase, Kansas law enforcement officers apprehended defendant. A sheriff’s deputy shot him in the back and he later died from the gunshot wound. Defendant’s estate commenced this action, alleging constitutional violations under 42 USC § 1983 and a state law claim. The complaint named as defendants several governmental entities, several officers in their individual capacities, and two county sheriffs in their individual and official capacities.

As relevant to this appeal, the county sheriffs moved to dismiss the official capacity claims, arguing they were state actors entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. The district court denied each sheriff’s motion, concluding that sheriffs are arms of the county, not the state.

One sheriff appealed, contending that the sheriff is a state actor. While Eleventh Amendment immunity applies to an entity that is an arm of the state, the US Supreme Court has not extended Eleventh Amendment to counties. In determining whether an official is a representative of the state or a local government entity, the Tenth Circuit evaluates four factors: (1) the character ascribed to the defendant under state law; (2) the autonomy accorded the defendant under state law; (3) the defendant’s finances, including the amount of state funding received; and (4) whether the defendant is concerned primarily with local or state affairs. This inquiry is function-specific, based on state law and structure. Here, (1) Kansas law lists sheriffs under county officer provisions; (2) Kansas sheriffs have substantial autonomy from the state in their law enforcement functions; (3) the county controls the sheriff’s salary and books; and (4) the sheriff is primarily concerned with local affairs. Accordingly, Kansas county sheriffs are county actors, and Eleventh Amendment immunity does not apply.

The order was affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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