In its zeal to return as much decision making as possible to the states, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled by a one-vote margin that disabled persons who work for state governments are not entitled to the same Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protections as other disabled workers.
The Court majority said that in enacting the ADA a decade ago, Congress exceeded its Constitutional authority when it allowed for the possibility that disabled workers could file employment-discrimination suits against the state government that employs them.
The Court’s February 21 ruling stemmed from an appeal from the state of Alabama in the case of University of Alabama v. Garrett in which a federal appeals court found that the state did violate ADA requirements regarding its refusal to accommodate the disability-related work needs of two state employees (Psychiatric News, November 3, 2000).
The state had prevailed at the trial-court level before losing on appeal. It then brought its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments last October. (The case began as two separate lawsuits but was combined because the grounds and issues involved were so similar.)
One case began when Patricia Garrett, director of women’s services at the University of Alabama, took a four-month medical leave in conjunction with chemotherapy she was undergoing for breast cancer. Her supervisor then demoted and transferred her, actions she argued were a response to the medical disability the cancer treatment caused. A 17-year employee of the university, Garrett decided to take the demotion and then retired soon after.
The second suit was filed by state correctional department employee Milton Ash, who suffers from a severe case of asthma. Ash had asked his department director to enforce the agency’s no-smoking policy and to service the cars his job required him to drive so that the pollutants they emitted, and which he said aggravated his asthma, would be greatly reduced. Department officials refused to make these accommodations.
Both plaintiffs’ suits cited violations of the ADA mandate that requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" to workers’ physical and mental disabilities.
The decision of the trial court that found in favor of the state hinged on the 11th Amendment’s prohibition against a private citizen’s suing a state in federal court unless the state has consented to being sued in federal court. On appeal, however, the appeals court agreed with the plaintiffs’ contention that the 14th Amendment should apply to discrimination-based cases, such as those brought under the ADA. That amendment is the one guaranteeing all citizens equal protection of the law and due process.
The High Court’s majority reversed the ruling from the appeals court, relying on the 11th Amendment argument, as the trial court did. The Court said that regardless of whether a state is in compliance with the federal ADA law, its citizens are barred by the U.S. Constitution from trying to obtain monetary damages in federal court.
The import of the February decision is that state employees who believe they are the victims of disability-based discrimination must rely on state courts and state laws to redress their grievances. If their state’s disability protection statutes are weak or nonexistent, they can no longer turn to the ADA and federal courts to redress their grievances.
The Supreme Court majority, in a decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the state engaged in a pervasive "pattern of discrimination" against disabled individuals, a standard that would have been required for a successful 14th Amendment argument.
"In order to authorize private individuals to recover money damages against the states, there must be a pattern of discrimination by the states," he wrote, "and the remedy imposed by Congress must be congruent and proportional to the targeted violation. Those requirements are not met here."
As a contrasting legal standard, Rehnquist cited the Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, which, he noted, was a legitimate 14th Amendment response to a substantiated pattern of racial discrimination by the states.
Writing for the Court’s four dissenting justice, Justice Stephen Breyer emphasized their contention that the majority’s viewpoint "improperly invades a power that the Constitution assigns to Congress."
He and colleagues John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg failed to make any headway with the justices who often vote in favor of the precedence of states’ power over that of the federal government. That majority consists of the Court’s conservative wing—Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.
Last year the same narrow Court split barred age-discrimination suits against states, even though that form of bias is also covered by federal statute. The trend is troubling to advocates of all forms of civil rights laws and protections, since the five majority justices in these cases appear to have set the Court, not Congress, as the arbiter of when discrimination is a pervasive enough pattern to warrant protection and penalties via federal law.
In the Garrett case, the five justices in the majority were unswayed by amicus curiae briefs from a wide array of individuals and organizations arguing in favor of the liability of states for ADA violations. These included former President George Bush (who signed the ADA into law in 1990), the National Mental Health Association, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, National Federation for the Blind, American Diabetes Association, American Association of University Professors, Southern Poverty Law Center, Brain Injury Association, American Psychiatric Nurses Association, American Association of Retired Persons, at least 20 civil rights organizations, the solicitor general of the United States, and 14 state governments.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama, et al., v. Garrett, et al., No. 99-1240 can be found on the Web at www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/00pdf/99-1240.pdf. Several of the amicus briefs submitted in support of the two sides in this case are available on the Web site of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law at www.bazelon.org/garrettcase.html. ▪