Tue. Apr 16th, 2024

Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer (1976) – State Immunity Fail – States Can Be Sued Under the 14th Amendment

Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445 (1976), was a United States Supreme Court decision that determined that the U.S. Congress has the power to abrogate the Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity of the states, if this is done pursuant to its Fourteenth Amendment power to enforce upon the states the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer – 427 U.S. 445


Congress has the power to authorize private suits against individual states under Section V of the 14th Amendment, which might be impermissible in other contexts.


Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and authorized private suits for monetary damages. When it did this, it cited its authority under Section V of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Plaintiffs sued, claiming that Congress did not have the ability to do this, because it would infringe on the sovereign immunity the individual states.


Can Congress authorize suits against states, infringing on sovereign immunity?




In allowing Congress to exercise this authority, the Court held that Section V of the 14th Amendment allows Congress to exercise authority that would otherwise infringe on areas under the responsibility of other entities, under the Constitution. However, because Section V has this grant of authority, the Supreme Court allowed Congress to abrogate sovereign immunity of the states as well. source

U.S. Supreme Court

Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445 (1976)

Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer

No. 75-251

Argued April 221, 1976

Decided June 28, 1976*

427 U.S. 445



Present and retired male employees of the State of Connecticut (petitioners in No. 75-251) brought this class action alleging, inter alia, that certain provisions of the State’s statutory retirement benefit plan discriminated against them because of their sex, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, as amended, extends coverage to the States as employers. The District Court ruled in their favor and entered prospective injunctive relief against respondent state officials. But the court denied petitioners’ request for an award of retroactive retirement benefits as compensation for losses caused by the State’s discrimination, as well as “a reasonable attorney’s fee as part of the costs,” as provided in Title VII, holding that both would constitute recovery of money damages from the State’s treasury, and were thus precluded by the Eleventh Amendment and by this Court’s decision in Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U. S. 651, where the District Court’s award for welfare benefits wrongfully withheld was held to violate that Amendment, there being no authorization in the Social Security Act for a citizen to sue a State. The Court of Appeals reversed in the matter of attorneys’ fees, the award of which was deemed to have only an “ancillary effect” on the state treasury of the sort permitted by Edelman, but otherwise affirmed.


1. The Eleventh Amendment does not bar a backpay award to petitioners in No. 75-251, since that Amendment and the principle of state sovereignty that it embodies are limited by the enforcement provisions of § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants Congress authority to enforce “by appropriate

Page 427 U. S. 446

legislation” the substantive provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, which themselves embody significant limitations on state authority. Congress, in determining what legislation is appropriate for enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment, may, as it has done in Title VII, provide for suits against States that are constitutionally impermissible in other contexts. The “threshold fact of congressional authorization” for a citizen to sue his state employer, which was absent in Edelman, supra, is thus present here. Pp. 427 U. S. 451-456.

2. Congress’ exercise of power in allowing reasonable attorneys’ fees is similarly not barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Pp. 427 U. S. 456-457.

519 F.2d 559, affirmed in part, reversed in part.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C J., and STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 427 U. S. 457, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 427 U. S. 458, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. source