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Sissom v. University of Texas High School

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 13, 2019

RYAN SISSOM, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS HIGH SCHOOL; UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS; BETH COOPER, Principal/Director III of University of Texas High School; STEVE ROSEN, Legal advisor for University of Texas regents; STEVE WALLS, Superintendent of University of Texas High School, Defendants - Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

          Before SMITH, WIENER, and ELROD, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM

         Ryan Sissom sued the University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas High School (UT High School), and various school officials, for racketeering and "gaslighting"-a term used by some to describe causing psychological harm. The district court dismissed Sissom's complaint for lack of jurisdiction as to all defendants, holding that they are entitled to sovereign immunity. We AFFIRM.

         I.

         In 1998, the Texas State Board of Education approved the University of Texas at Austin to establish UT High School, an online high school program authorized to award high school credits and diplomas. UT High School is governed by the University of Texas.

         Sissom enrolled in UT High School in 2014 and attended for the next two and a half years until he seemingly graduated from the school. Sissom, proceeding pro se, filed suit against the University of Texas at Austin, UT High School, Beth Cooper (UT High School's principal), Steve Rosen (Associate Vice President for Legal Affairs for the University of Texas), and Steve Walls (UT High School's superintendent) in their official capacities, alleging claims of "gaslighting" as well as violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO).

         Sissom bases his claims on the events that allegedly occurred while he was a student at UT High School. At bottom, Sissom alleges that UT High School's various policies and practices regarding grading and ranking "knocked [him] out of the running" for various scholarships and admissions into prestigious colleges. Sissom also alleges that UT High School's officials conspired to do so in order to gaslight-or cause psychological harm to-him. The district court dismissed Sissom's complaint for lack of jurisdiction, holding that all of the defendants enjoy sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Sissom appealed.

         II.

         We review a district court's dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction de novo. Meyers ex rel. Benzing v. Texas, 410 F.3d 236, 240 (5th Cir. 2005).

         III.

         States are immune from suit except by their consent or by express abrogation of their immunity by Congress pursuant to an appropriate constitutional provision. Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 733 (1999); see also Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 72 (1996). The states' immunity "is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty which the [s]tates enjoyed before the ratification of the Constitution, and which they retain today . . . except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional Amendments." Alden, 527 U.S. at 713. The Supreme Court has made it clear that, although the states' immunity from suit has been referred to as "Eleventh Amendment immunity," this phrase is "something of a misnomer, for the sovereign immunity of the States neither derives from, nor is limited by, the terms of the Eleventh Amendment." Id.; accord Franchise Tax Bd. of Cal. v. Hyatt, 139 S.Ct. 1485, 1496 (2019).

         The Eleventh Amendment confirmed the deeply rooted "recognition that the [s]tates, although a union, maintain certain attributes of sovereignty, including sovereign immunity." Hyatt, 139 S.Ct. at 1496 (quoting P.R. Aqueduct & Sewer Auth. v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 146 (1993)). However, because the Eleventh Amendment textually divests federal courts of jurisdiction over states, it is indispensable to assessing this court's jurisdiction. Under the Eleventh Amendment, "[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 . . . ." U.S. Const. amend. XI. "When a state agency is the named defendant, the Eleventh Amendment bars suits for both money damages and injunctive relief unless the state has waived its immunity." Cozzo v. Tangipahoa Par. Council-President Gov't, 279 F.3d 273, 280-81 (5th Cir. 2002). However, "the Eleventh Amendment does not extend its immunity to units of local government." Bd. of Trs. of the Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 369 (2001).

         Here, we must determine whether UT High School is an arm of the state entitled to sovereign immunity or a local government body not entitled to sovereign immunity. "To determine whether a unit of government belongs to state or local government, we employ the six-factor test developed in Clark v. Tarrant Cty., Tex., 798 F.2d 736 (5th Cir. 1986)." Providence Behavioral ...


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