The Supreme Court: Which One Wins—States' Rights or ADA?

Which One Wins—States' Rights or ADA?

When it comes to monetary damages related to disabilities, the right of the states under the Eleventh Amendment to be immune from lawsuits takes precedence over Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court ruled on February 21, 2001 in University of Alabama v. Garrett. Even though businesses can be sued if they don't make accommodations for the disabled, states are immune from monetary damages for the same reason.

Patricia Garrett was employed as the Director of Nursing, OB/Gyn/Neonatal Services, for the University of Alabama in Birmingham Hospital. In 1994, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a lumpectomy, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy. Her treatments required her to take substantial leave from work.

When she returned to work in July 1995, her supervisor told her she would have to give up her director position. Instead she was transferred to a lower-paying position as a nurse manager.

Garrett sued the state in district court seeking monetary damages based on the ADA. The district court ordered summary judgment because it did not believe the Congress had the right to take away the state's immunity to lawsuits based on the Eleventh Amendment. Garrett appealed the case to the 11th Circuit Court, which reversed the district court's ruling, so the state took the case to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court agreed with the district court and essentially said that there was not enough proof of a long history of state discrimination against the disabled to justify abrogating the state's claim to immunity, so states were given an immunity to being sued based on an ADA claim. In a 5 to 4 decision written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, who was joined by Justices Kennedy, O'Connor, Scalia and Thomas, the Court ruled:

“Congress made a general finding in the ADA that 'historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities, and, despite some improvements, such forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities continue to be a serious and pervasive social problem.' … The record assembled by Congress includes many instances to support such a finding. But the great majority of these incidents do not deal with the activities of States.

Court Connotations

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits employers from “discriminat[ing] against a qualified individual with a disability because of th[at] disability … in regard to … terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” Employers must make reasonable accommodations for the employee with a disability.

“Respondents in their brief cite half a dozen examples from the record that did involve States. A department head at the University of North Carolina refused to hire an applicant for the position of health administrator because he was blind; similarly, a student at a state university in South Dakota was denied an opportunity to practice teach because the dean at that time was convinced that blind people could not teach in public schools. A microfilmer at the Kansas Department of Transportation was fired because he had epilepsy; deaf workers at the University of Oklahoma were paid a lower salary than those who could hear. The Indiana State Personnel Office informed a woman with a concealed disability that she should not disclose it if she wished to obtain employment.

“Several of these incidents undoubtedly evidence an unwillingness on the part of state officials to make the sort of accommodations for the disabled required by the ADA … these incidents taken together fall far short of even suggesting the pattern of unconstitutional discrimination on which legislation must be based.”

Justice Breyer wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens. He found there was enough evidence collected by the Congress to justify mandating that the states comply with the ADA and lose their immunity from being sued. Breyer wrote:

  • “The powerful evidence of discriminatory treatment throughout society in general, including discrimination by private persons and local governments, implicates state governments as well, for state agencies form part of that same larger society. There is no particular reason to believe that they are immune from the 'stereotypic assumptions' and pattern of 'purposeful unequal treatment' that Congress found prevalent … there is no need to rest solely upon evidence of discrimination by local governments or general societal discrimination. There are roughly 300 examples of discrimination by state governments themselves in the legislative record … I fail to see how this evidence 'fall[s] far short of even suggesting the pattern of unconstitutional discrimination on which legislation must be based.'”
  • “The congressionally appointed task force collected numerous specific examples, provided by persons with disabilities themselves, of adverse, disparate treatment by state officials. They reveal, not what the Court describes as 'half a dozen' instances of discrimination, but hundreds of instances of adverse treatment at the hands of state officials—instances in which a person with a disability found it impossible to obtain a state job, to retain state employment, to use the public transportation that was readily available to others in order to get to work, or to obtain a public education, which is often a prerequisite to obtaining employment. State-imposed barriers also frequently made it difficult or impossible for people to vote, to enter a public building, to access important government services, such as calling for emergency assistance, and to find a place to live due to a pattern of irrational zoning decisions.”

Even though the four-vote minority did believe there was enough evidence to justify Congress's decision to include the states under Title I of the ADA, the five-vote majority made it possible for states to avoid the sometimes costly accommodations businesses must provide, as well as risk getting sued.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.