The conclusion of a drawn-out legal dispute over a psychologist’s due
process rights concluded with a US District Court judge confirming that the
psychology board, as well as the board’s employee, Ms. Jaime Monic, are both
entitled to immunity under the 11th Amendment, which bars individuals from
suing a state in federal court.
The lawsuit was brought by Dr. Eric Cerwonka who alleged violations of his
Constitutional rights to due process, when his license was suspended without
a hearing and amid other alleged irregularities by the investigations
subcommittee of the Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists.
A jury trial had been scheduled for June 4, 2020, but Judge Michael Juneau ruled in February on a Motion for Summary Judgment and arguments by Atty. Gen. Jeff
Landry, ending the dispute. A representative from Cerwonka’s legal firm said that there would be no appeal.
The Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists is the law enforcement and regulatory agency for the practice of psychology.
In August 2017, Dr. Cerwonka filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court Western District of Louisiana Lafayette division. In his complaint, Cerwonka and his attorneys alleged that the board acted on an interim basis before any hearing had taken place, that Cerwonka was denied a proper opportunity to defend himself against specific charges, that an emergency action was taken because he exercised his right to
free speech, and that evidence was manipulated and obtained illegally. Among these and other violations of his rights, he and his attorneys also noted that the prosecuting
attorney for the board had previously represented Cerwonka in a hotly contested custody battle and that the attorney had information that, allegedly, was used in the board’s prosecution.
In January 2018, Cerwonka and his attorneys amended the complaint against the psychology board to include Executive Director Jamie Monic.
In March 2018, Magistrate Judge Carol B. Whitehurst recommended dismissal based on lack of federal jurisdiction, writing, “The Eleventh Amendment bars an individual from
suing a state in federal court unless the state consents or Congress has clearly and validly abrogated the state’s sovereign immunity.”
United States District Judge Robert James agreed, and issued a Judgment on April 18, 2018, stating, “After an independent review of the record, and consideration of the objections filed, this Court concludes that the Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendation is correct and adopts the findings and conclusions therein as its own.”
Therefore, Judge James dismissed the matter in part on the grounds that the state is immune. However, a second aspect of the suit continued, naming the Executive
Director as an individual.
On April 18, 2019, in response to another Motion to Dismiss, Judge Juneau ordered that a Motion to Dismiss was partly granted and partly denied, leaving Ms. Monic as the sole defendant.
In late 2019, Ms. Monic and her attorneys at the state requested a jury trial. Judge Juneau granted the unopposed Motion to reset the Bench Trial to a Jury Trial, and
scheduled the matter for June 4, 2020 in Lafayette.
On December 19, 2019, Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry submitted a Motion for Summary Judgment and memorandum in support of the motion.
Landry wrote, “Plaintiff cannot prove the Jaime Monic acted outside of the scope of her duties. Absent evidence that Ms. Monic acted outside of the scope of her duties, she is clearly entitled to absolute immunity. Alternatively, Ms. Monic is entitled to qualified
immunity as her actions were reasonable actions to assist the Psychology Board is carrying out its duty to protect the public. Plaintiff cannot demonstrate any violation of a clearly established law and therefore, has no claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983
against Ms. Monic.”
Defending attorneys argued, “… all of the facts alleged arise out of Ms. Monic’s performance of her official duties. It is clear from Ms. Monic’s deposition that Ms. Monic never acted outside her official capacity.”
“Qualified immunity protects public employees and officials from individual capacity suits under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for performance of ‘discretionary duties’ when their
actions are reasonable regarding the rights allegedly violated.” They quoted that, “Qualified immunity protects public officials from suit unless their conduct violates a
clearly established constitutional right.”
Cerwonka’s attorneys argued that the Supreme Court has refused to extend absolute immunity beyond a very limited class. “Absolute immunity extends only to those ‘whose special functions or constitutional states requires complete protection from suit.’
However, ‘state executive officials are not entitled to absolute immunity for their official actions.’
And, they argued that, “In professions requiring specific licenses, ‘the licenses are not to be taken away without procedural due process required by the Fourteenth
Amendment,'” wrote the attorneys.
“An essential principle of due process is that a deprivation of life, liberty, or property be preceded by notice and opportunity for hearing,” said the attorneys for Cerwonka.