Texas Education Agency v. United States Department of Education, No. 20-60051 (5th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Plaintiff filed suit against the DOE, alleging that the TEA had discharged her in retaliation for whistleblowing. Congress enacted a broad-based whistleblower protection program as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 (NDAA). The NDAA prohibits any recipient of federal dollars from retaliating against whistleblowers who report an abuse of that money.
The Fifth Circuit granted the TEA's petition for review, vacated the offending order, and remanded for prompt entry of dismissal. The court agreed with the TEA that the DOE's investigation of plaintiff's complaint and award of damages violated Texas's sovereign immunity. The court explained that whistleblower-retaliation investigations into a state, like any other administrative proceedings brought by private parties, are barred by sovereign immunity. The court joined two other federal courts that have directly addressed the issue and held that the NDAA is not adequately clear for any waiver from sovereign immunity to be effective. Furthermore, the clarity required for a waiver of sovereign immunity to be "knowing" cannot be met by regulations clarifying an ambiguous statute. Rather, the needed clarity must come directly from the statute.