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Banks v. Jones

Supreme Court of Arkansas

June 6, 2019

JIMMY BANKS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY APPELLANT
v.
SHARON JONES APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE JEFFERSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 35CV-2013-450], HONORABLE ALEX GUYNN, JUDGE.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Patricia Ann Ausdall, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellant.

          Sutter & Gillham, P.L.L.C., by: Luther Oneal Sutter and Lucien Gillham, for appellee.

          SHAWN A. WOMACK, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE

         Sharon Jones filed suit against Jimmy Banks, Warden of the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC). Jones alleged she had been terminated from her employment at the Varner Unit due to racial and gender discrimination. Banks moved for dismissal, arguing that he was entitled to immunity from suit. The circuit court denied that motion. We reverse and dismiss.

         I.

         Jones, an African American woman, worked at the Varner Unit until her termination in 2013. According to Jones, she was discharged under circumstances that similarly situated white or male employees were not and was thus subject to unlawful racial and gender discrimination. Jones points to other African American women who were terminated from ADC.[1] She discusses the circumstances leading up to their discharges at length. Yet the circumstances giving rise to her termination are conspicuously absent from the pleadings.

         After her termination, Jones filed the underlying action against Banks in his official and individual capacity. She sought to hold Banks liable for alleged racial and gender discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Arkansas Constitution. Jones alleged to seek only injunctive and declaratory relief from Banks in his official capacity. In her prayer for relief, she requested compensatory and punitive damages, reinstatement, and front pay.

         Banks moved for judgment on the pleadings for failure to state a claim and alleged he was entitled to sovereign, qualified, and statutory immunity. The circuit court denied that motion. Jones subsequently filed an amended complaint. Banks moved for dismissal based on constitutional sovereign immunity, qualified immunity, and statutory immunity. The circuit court denied that motion, holding that Banks was not entitled to any form of immunity. This interlocutory appeal followed.

         II.

         An interlocutory appeal from an "order denying a motion to dismiss . . . based on the defense of sovereign immunity or the immunity of a government official" is permissible under Arkansas Rule of Appellate Procedure-Civil 2(a)(10). See Ark. Cmty. Corr. v. Barnes, 2018 Ark. 122');">2018 Ark. 122, at 2, 542 S.W.3d 841, 842. When reviewing the denial of the motion to dismiss under Rule 2(a)(10), we treat the facts alleged in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Williams v. McCoy, 2018 Ark. 17, at 2, 535 S.W.3d 266, 268. All reasonable inferences are resolved in favor of the complaint and the pleadings are liberally construed. Id. Because our rules require fact pleading, the complaint must state facts to entitle the pleader to relief. Id. Mere conclusions will not suffice. Id. We review a motion to dismiss for abuse of discretion. Id. But whether a party is immune from suit is purely a question of law and is reviewed de novo. Barnes, 2018 Ark. 122');">2018 Ark. 122, at 2, 542 S.W.3d at 842.

         III.

         We turn first to the claims brought against Banks in his official capacity.

         The Arkansas Constitution unequivocally provides that "[t]he State of Arkansas shall never be made defendant in any of her courts." Ark. Const. art. 5, § 20. We have extended sovereign immunity to state agencies and state employees sued in their official capacities. Williams, 2018 Ark. 17, at 3, 535 S.W.3d at 268. That is because a suit against a state official in their official capacity is not a suit against that person, but rather is a suit against that official's office. See Ark. Tech. Univ. v. ...


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