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Monday, February 11, 2008
WVVU v. Rodriguez sent back to state court
It looks as if West Virginia University and former head coach Rich Rodriguez will fight over the $ 4 million buyout payment in state court in West Virginia, rather than federal court, which is where Rodriguez had tried to move the case.
Judge Bailey in United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia today remanded the action to state court, based solely on the legal conclusion that WVU is an arm of the state of West Virginia and a state is not a "citizen of a state" for purposes of diversity jurisdiction. Deciding the case on this basis allowed the court to avoid deciding whether Rodriguez was a citizen of West Virginia or Michigan at the time the lawsuit was filed, a murky factual dispute that might have taken a while to unravel.
The historic understanding is that diversity jurisdiction (a case can be filed in federal court when it is between citizens of different states) is intended to protect out-of-state parties against the local bias that comes with litigating in front of local judges and juries. Ironically, it is hard to imagine an outsider more likely to be subject to local bias in Morgantown, W. Va, than the former head football coach at the flagship state university who (allegedly) bolted for the next good job just a year or so after signing a new contract.
The case actually demonstrates how the policies underlying diversity are limited by concerns for state sovereign immunity. A case brought by a state against a citizen of another state on a non-federal claim can be brought either in state court (where WVU sued) or in the Supreme Court of the United States on its original jurisdiction. And there is no provision for removal from state court to the Supreme Court. This means an outsider defendant such as Rodriguez (assuming he became a Michigan citizen
in time) can get into federal court and thus avoid local bias only on the unilateral choice of the State--and it is the rare State that will bring this sort of breach of contract action in SCOTUS rather than in its own state courts, especially against a reviled expatriate (assuming that Rodriguez did establish a new domicile). Of course, the local bias might be even worse for the outsider, since he now has to come to foreign soil to litigate against the full power and influence of the State.
But these limitations are grounded in concerns for state sovereign immunity, which limits the ability of an individual to hale a State into federal court without that state's consent. A case such as this gets into federal court only if the state wants it there in the first instance and agrees to go there (and then the State gets to go directly to the Supreme Court, without having to pass through the "inferior" courts). We do not give any control to the defendant, whatever the risks of local bias, out of these concerns for sovereign immunity.