Supreme Court Rules State Employees Cannot Sue ADA
Limiting the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled that state employees who claim they suffered job discrimination because of a disability cannot sue their employer for damages in federal court, the Washington Post reports. In a 5-4 decision, the Court continued its recent trend of limiting federal power over states, saying that Congress "has no constitutional authority to subject states to such lawsuits" under the ADA (Lane, Washington Post, 2/22). Yesterday's decision stems from two lawsuits filed by Alabama state employees seeking damages for alleged discrimination. In the first, Patricia Garrett, a registered nurse, sued the University of Alabama Hospital over being demoted after breast cancer treatment; in the second, Milton Ash, a security guard, sued the state Department of Youth Services "for failing to arrange his work conditions to accomodate his chronic asthma and other medical problems." Although a federal District Court originally agreed with the state's argument that it was immune from the lawsuits under the 11th Amendment, which limits private lawsuits against states, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling and reinstated the lawsuits, finding that Congress had validly "breach[ed]" the states' immunity in enacting the ADA. The Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case, resulting in yesterday's reversal of the 11th Circuit's decision.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that Congress had presented an "inadequate legislative record" of states' discrimination against people with disabilities necessary to "be a valid abrogation of the states' immunity" from lawsuits by state employees seeking damages, as required under the 11th Amendment (Greenhouse, New York Times, 2/22). Rehnquist -- joined in the majority by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- added that Congress had not proved the "pattern of discrimination" necessary to invoke the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and that, in the absence of such a pattern, the states must set their own discrimination laws for their employees (Biskupic, USA Today, 2/22). "States are not required by the 14th Amendment to make special accommodations for the disabled, so long as their actions towards such individuals are rational. They could quite hardheadedly -- and perhaps hardheartedly -- hold to job-qualification requirements which do not make allowance for the disabled," Rehnquist wrote (Richey, Christian Science Monitor, 2/22). He added that it would be "entirely rational for a state employer to conserve scarce financial resources by hiring employees who are able to use existing facilities" and thus avoid adding accommodations for the disabled.
Justice Stephen Breyer -- joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and David Souter -- wrote in his dissent that the Court's decision "improperly invades a power that the Constitution assigns to Congress": enforcing the "substantive" equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Contesting Rehnquist's assertion that Congress had amassed an inadequate record of state discrimination, Breyer attached a list of 12 hearings that Congressional committees convened in the two years before the ADA was passed in 1990, as well as "39 pages of state-by-state examples of official acts of discrimination that a Congressional task force compiled while the legislation was under consideration," the New York Times reports (New York Times, 2/22). "In fact, Congress compiled a vast legislative record documenting massive, society-wide discrimination against persons with disabilities," Breyer wrote (Murray, Washington Times, 2/22). Rehnquist said that Breyer's list contained only "unexamined, anecdotal accounts" (New York Times, 2/22).
Yesterday's ruling was criticized by advocates for people with disabilities, who feared that it could lead to further restrictions of the ADA by the Court (Rosenbaum, New York Times, 2/22). The decision itself is "limited," the Washington Post reports, as it does not "affect private-sector employees or alter the ADA's broader requirements of access to public places for the disabled." In addition, disabled state employees can ask the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission "to enforce the ADA on their behalf ... or they may sue for damages in state courts under state disability rights laws"(Washington Post, 2/22). But civil rights lawyers say these remedies are not "practical" for individual state employees (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 2/22). In addition, state laws covering the protection of the disabled are "generally weaker" than the ADA. Cases that address whether states are immune from suits from private citizens under the ADA are currently "working their way through lower courts ... and one of those cases presumably will eventually reach the Supreme Court," the Times reports. Conservatives applauded the decision as an upholding of the principle of states' rights. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), however, joined disability advocates in criticizing the decision. Harkin said that the ruling "undermines every citizen's constitutional right to be protected against irrational and unfair discrimination." But the Times reports that the "prevailing view" among advocates and policy makers was that the Court's decision leaves Congress "with little room to act" (Rosenbaum, New York Times, 2/22). To read the full text of Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett et. al., go to http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/00pdf/99-1240.pdf. Note: you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the ruling. Excerpts of the decision are also available from the Times at http://www1.nytimes.com/2001/02/22/national/22STEX.html.