By: Christopher J. Pedraita
St. John’s Law Student
American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Staff
Reversing the bankruptcy court, in In re City of San Bernardino, a district court recently held that the Eleventh Amendment barred a chapter 9 debtor’s claims against certain state agencies. In San Bernardino, the City of San Bernardino (the “City”) sought to protect funds, which the State of California (the “State”) demanded that the City remit to the State. The funds at issue in San Bernardino had been parceled out to the City’s redevelopment agency (“RDA”) and earmarked for redeveloping urban neighborhoods. In light of the fiscal emergency experienced by State in 2011, however, its legislature supplanted the existing RDAs with “successor agencies” to conclude all remaining matters of the RDAs, including returning the funds to the county auditor-controller that the RDAs had not already been committed to a project. As part of this process, the State ordered the City’ successor agency to return millions of dollars in tax revenues to the State’s Department of Finance (the “DOF”). If the successor agency failed to remit the funds to the DOF, the State warned that it could withhold tax revenue from the successor agency or the City. The warning prompted the City to commence adversary proceedings against the various state agencies seeking injunctive and declaratory relief to, among other things, prevent the State agencies from withholding tax revenue from the successor agency (and the City itself). The State agencies moved to dismiss the City’s complaint on several grounds, including that claims were barred under the Eleventh Amendment. While the bankruptcy court granted the State agencies’ motion to dismiss with leave to amend, believing that the City could show imminent injury if the state agencies withheld the tax money, the court rejected the state agencies’ Eleventh Amendment defense. In particular, the bankruptcy court ruled that when the subject of litigation was unquestionably within the court’s control state sovereign immunity could not prevent the adversary proceeding. On appeal, the district court reversed the bankruptcy court holding the Eleventh Amendment to apply in order to protect the State’s rights to run its own finances.