ANALYSIS OF SEPTEMBER 8, 2022 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted September 8, 2022) After two “dry” Thursdays, the Supreme Court of Virginia hands down a single published opinion this morning. The dispositive issue in Fines v Rappahannock Area CSB is whether a regional community services board is entitled to immunity as a municipal corporation.
Fines received services from the board when he was a child. Years later, he filed suit against the board and the estate of one of its former employees, alleging that the employee had sexually assaulted him.
The board filed a plea in bar, asserting immunity. After an evidentiary hearing, the circuit court ruled that the board was a municipal corporation and was accordingly entitled to immunity.
Fines got a writ, and today the Supreme Court reverses and remands for trial. The court examines the six factors that determine whether a body is or is not a municipal corporation, and finds that the board doesn’t meet enough of them. Specifically, it doesn’t possess sufficient autonomy from the local governments that created it — in this case, that means the City of Fredericksburg plus Spotsylvania, Caroline, Stafford, and King George Counties — and it doesn’t possess the power of eminent domain, among others. That means that it isn’t entitled to governmental immunity.
Near the end of today’s opinion, authored for a unanimous court by Justice Powell, we get a ruling that appears to be of first impression in Virginia, though other courts have weighed in on it and are cited here. The justices rule that governmental immunity is a matter of substance, not procedure. That matters in this specific context because entities are more likely to be considered municipal corporations if the legal issue presented is one of procedure, not substance. Update: John Koehler has published some insightful analysis of today’s decision here.