Monday, October 24, 2016

Native American Tribes and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act: A Right Without a Remedy

In Williams v. Poarch Band of Creek Indians, No. 15-13552 (11th Cir. Oct. 18, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Christine Williams's age discrimination claim against the defendant Native American tribe, holding that the claim was barred by the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity. As the court explained, "even though the ADEA is a statute of general applicability, and the Poarch Band might be generally subject to its terms, the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity protects the Poarch Band from suits under the statute."

It seems odd that an employee might have the right to be free from age discrimination yet lack the means to enforce that right, but the dismissal of Williams's claim against a Native American tribe mirrors the Supreme Court's treatment of age discrimination claims against states. In Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, the Supreme Court concluded that, although the ADEA prohibits states from discriminating against employees based on age, the ADEA does not constitute a valid abrogation of states' sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Therefore, as with a Native American tribe, a state is prohibited by the ADEA from engaging in age discrimination, but an individual cannot sue to enforce that right.

Significantly, the sovereign immunity enjoyed by states and Native American tribes does not bar suits by a federal agency. Thus, the EEOC has the authority to sue a state or a tribe under the ADEA, even on behalf of an individual who could not himself bring a suit. Still, the EEOC has limited resources, so the EEOC's authority to sue tribes and states cannot not completely fill the gap arising from the bar against private suits.

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.