High Court Limits Disabilities Law

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.

Garrett also filed her claim under Section 504 and the Supreme Court could decide to consider whether she has a right to seek monetary damages under this statute.

Also, today's ruling does not affect the federal government's ability to sue states for discriminatory practices. And depending on the state, an employee may have a right to sue in state courts as well.

"In no way should people with disabilities accept a type of discrimination they have long assumed was no longer legal," said Catherine A. Hanssens of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which submitted a brief on behalf of 19 civil rights groups in support of Garrett and Ash.

Court: Congress Overreached

The logic of the high court's ruling focuses on a key phrase in the debate over states' rights: sovereign immunity.

Although the 11th Amendment protects states from citizens' lawsuits in federal courts, the Constitution does make room for some instances when states' immunity is lifted. Section 5 of the 14th Amendment, for example, grants Congress the power to dissolve such immunity for the sake of providing citizens equal protection under the law.

But during oral arguments before the court last October, Alabama's attorney told the justices that all 50 states already have their own anti-discrimination laws and provide enough protection for workers.

“This [ADA] was not needed; it’s not proportional to the very problem they were trying to change,” Jeffrey Sutton said.

Not surprisingly, Garrett's supporters do not agree. State laws vary in their substance and Alabama has the weakest statute by far, they say. "If you had to rely only on state law and you live in Alabama, you would be in an unfortunate situation," Hanssens said. "You would be defenseless against disability discrimination."

Trivializing Discrimination?

Further, Congress passed the ADA because lawmakers believed there was a record among the states of “pervasive prejudice against persons with disabilities,” Garrett's lawyer Michael Gottesman, told the court.

He cited the example of a woman with arthritis who was denied a university teaching job. Scalia voiced skepticism of a trend, saying that was “one instance.”

“There are dozens, hundreds of these, your honor,” Gottesman replied.

During the argument session, Breyer said court papers filed in the case showed numerous examples of disability discrimination.

“Why isn’t it a constitutional violation where Congress has lots and lots of instances of states that seem to discriminate against handicapped people?” he said.

For Ira Burnim, legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, who worked on behalf of Garrett and Ash, the court's willingness to curtail the ADA despite its popularity with a bipartisan majority of Congress is "frightening."

"When the ADA was enacted it was a great moment," he said. "And it's a sad moment when the Supreme Court goes down this path both in cutting back on civil rights protections against the states but also trivializing the problem of disability discrimination."

States' Rights Trend

For Supreme Court watchers, today's ruling should come as no surprise. In recent years, the court has handed down a series of rulings freeing states from federal lawsuits filed by private citizens.

In the term ending last June, the court ruled that Congress exceeded its authority when it allowed federal lawsuits against the states under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The law did not address an established record of unconstitutional age discrimination by the states, the court reasoned.

Although sovereign immunity usually doesn't invite widespread public interest, the highly charged Garrett case is different.

"In the earlier [sovereign immunity] cases the court could invalidate statutes without seeming to go against important policies the public supports," said Georgetown University law professor Mark Tushnet. "The practical importance matters more than the signal in this case, precisely because there are a lot of state employees affected."

In lower court action, Garrett and Ash's lawsuits were dismissed in district court. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed the decision, ruling the state was not immune to suits filed under the ADA.

The cases are University of Alabama at Birmingham Board of Trustees vs. Garrett and Ash vs. Alabama Department of Youth Services.

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