The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today that state workers cannot file employment-discrimination lawsuits under a key federal disability-rights law.
The ruling in one of this term's weightiest cases limits the scope of the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act and continues the high court's recent trend of trimming the power of the federal government over the states.
When Congress passed the disabilities law, lawmakers went too far in allowing state workers to seek monetary damages for alleged employment bias, the slim majority ruled. The 11th Amendment protects states from being sued by private citizens in federal courts, the justices said, and the ADA does not trump that immunity.
Today's ruling reverses a federal appeals court decision that let two Alabama state employees sue over alleged bias. The high court did not rule on the merits of the employees' claims.
Disabilities and civil rights activists had predicted a ruling in favor of the states would jeopardize protections under an array of federal civil rights laws, including the ADA. Alabama, with seven concurring states, said a ruling on its behalf would help curb the overreach of federal power.
A Narrow Majority
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a champion of states' rights, wrote the opinion for the narrow majority.
"We decide here whether employees of the state of Alabama may recover money damages by reason of the state's failure to comply with the (employment discrimination) provisions of Title 1 of the Americans With Disabilities Act. We hold that such suits are barred by the 11th Amendment," Rehnquist wrote for the court.
Joining Rehnquist were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Writing for the minority, Breyer said, "The court ... improperly invades a power that the Constitution assigns to Congress."
Today's case began when Patricia Garrett, a former registered nurse at University of Alabama hospital, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994.
Garrett underwent a lumpectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy, and spent four months away from work. But a week after her return to the hospital where she worked for 17 years, Garrett says she was demoted even though she was able to perform her duties. She later sued for discrimination.
Ash, a security guard for the Alabama Department of Youth Services, said his severe asthma was aggravated by the state's refusal to enforce its no-smoking policy and fix exhaust problems on a vehicle he was assigned to drive.
Not a Fatal Blow
Disabilities and civil rights activists — who filed briefs supporting Garrett and Ash by the dozen — say the Supreme Court's ruling is a blow to their fight against discrimination, but not a fatal one.
Although the milestone law was designed to provide a uniform remedy nationwide, the ADA is not the final recourse for disabled state workers with discrimination claims.
State employees can still sue in federal court for what's called "injunctive relief," which can put an end to discriminatory behavior but does not provide monetary damages. Those state workers seeking financial compensation still have an avenue under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the federal anti-discrimination law that was the precursor to the ADA.