“The King Can Do No Wrong”: Arkansas Supreme Court Removes Citizens' Right to Sue the State

By Adrienne Griffis

Today, in Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas v. Matthew Andrews, 2018 Ark. 12, the Arkansas Supreme Court refused to enforce a state employee’s right to be paid for overtime by holding that the employee could not sue the state, even in its capacity as his employer. On its face, this case may appear to affect only the tens of thousands of Arkansas citizens employed by hundreds of Arkansas state agencies; however, this Draconian decision unfortunately reaches far beyond the context of employee-employer relationships. If you live or work anywhere in Arkansas, this decision affects your ability to enforce many rights, privileges, and protections guaranteed by Arkansas law.

The case originated when Matthew Andrews sued his employer, Rich Mountain Community College (RMCC), which is part of the University of Arkansas System. Mr. Andrews alleged that RMCC failed to pay him for overtime as required by the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act. RMCC claimed Mr. Andrews could not sue the college because the Arkansas Constitution prohibits the filing of lawsuits against the state or any political subdivision of the state. However, prior to today’s decision, the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act permitted employees to file suit against any employer for violations of the Act. Pursuant to case law dating back to 1996, the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act created an exception to the general rule that the state could not be made a defendant in a lawsuit. Today, the Arkansas Supreme Court overruled its long-standing precedent by holding that the Constitution prohibits all lawsuits against the state, even those expressly authorized by exceptions contained in other Arkansas statutes. Accordingly, Mr. Andrews’ lawsuit against his employer was dismissed, effectively allowing RMCC to (allegedly) violate the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act without repercussion.

Clearly, this decision has a serious impact on the rights of state employees. The State of Arkansas is the largest employer in our state, with a workforce of over 70,000 individuals.[1] However, the reach of this decision goes far beyond the employee-employer context. By stating that “[t]he General Assembly does not have the power to override” the Constitutional amendment which generally prohibits these types of lawsuits, the Supreme Court has held that all statutes allowing lawsuits against the state or its political subdivisions are unconstitutional. This means that the following entities now cannot be sued: state agencies, state‑funded schools, state-funded hospitals, counties, cities, towns, local school districts, or any other state or local government entity. Accordingly, persons aggrieved by any of the foregoing entities likely have no legal recourse to address wrongdoing. For example:

  • If you are employed by any state or local government entity or institution, you now have no right to sue your employer for wrongful termination, breach of contract, or any other wrongdoing related to your employment.
  • If your business contracts to provide products or services to a state or local governmental agency, you have no right to sue them if they do not pay you for your work.
  • If the state overtaxes you or your business, you have no right to sue to have your tax liability reduced.
  • If you or your child are injured by a medical professional at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, or any other state-run medical facility, you now have no right to file a lawsuit to be compensated for those injuries.
  • If you attempt to obtain information pursuant to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, you now have no right to sue the government to force them to comply with your request. They may now be able to withhold information from the public by simply refusing to produce the requested information.
  • Under the doctrine of eminent domain, the state can seize privately-owned property to use for a public purpose. If the state takes your property, you have the right to be paid appropriate compensation. However, you now have no right to sue if the state underpays you for the value of your property.

In its most narrow form, this decision prejudices state employees and creates an unfair dichotomy between the respective obligations of state agencies and private employers. In a broader context, the case has the potential to negatively impact the rights of all Arkansans, regardless of employment status. Be careful in your dealings with government agencies and institutions, because you now have limited means of redress for their wrongdoing.

This article was published in Arkansas Business on January 29, 2018.

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[1]    According to research published by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission in July 2016.

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