February 21, 2001
A Supreme Court ruling has stripped away individuals with disabilities' primary means of recourse when states discriminate against them, a move that Lambda Legal said Wednesday demands that the federal government step up its role in enforcing states' compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Lambda AIDS Project Director Catherine A. Hanssens, author of Lambda's amicus brief in the case and an expert on the ADA, said, "While this is a serious blow to the power of the ADA, it is far from fatal, and those with disabilities are far from powerless. States' legal obligations under the ADA have not changed, and the federal government retains the ability and responsibility to pursue state discriminators."
Added Lambda Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow, "Lambda calls on the federal government to vigorously enforce the employment protections of the ADA now that individual remedies have been gutted. We hope that President Bush has as strong a commitment to ending disability discrimination as his father," she said, noting that former President George Bush had submitted a brief on behalf of the plaintiffs, Patricia Garrett and Milton Ash.
Lambda's amicus brief, joined by 19 other civil rights groups including the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, and People for the American Way, argued that the ADA was Congress' "congruent and proportional response" to the documented and widespread exclusion of people with disabilities from state employment, facilities, and services. Such legislation is valid under the Fourteenth Amendment, which empowers Congress to nullify the states' sovereign immunity from suits for money damages to remedy unconstitutional discrimination.
"The Court has exceeded its power and second-guessed Congress' determination that a broad range of remedies are necessary to end entrenched disability discrimination by the states," Harlow said, adding, "This ruling misreads the Fourteenth Amendment, which explicitly gives Congress a crucial role in legislating necessary remedies for discrimination to bring about the core American ideal of equality for all."
The 5-4 decision in University of Alabama v. Garrett, ruling that employees of the state of Alabama may not recover money damages in two separate cases concerning the state's failure to comply with Title I of the ADA, strips millions of people with disabilities of a basic means of enforcing the federal law.
The 17-page majority opinion, written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Justice Kennedy also wrote a three-page concurring opinion, joined by Justice O'Connor.
In a dissent with 43 pages of appendices documenting state discrimination against those with disabilities, Justice Stephen G. Breyer condemned the majority's excessive review of Congress' decision to outlaw states' discrimination, pointing out, ". . . It is difficult to understand why the Court, which applies 'minimum "rational-basis" review' to statutes that burden persons with disabilities, . . . subjects to far stricter scrutiny a statute that seeks to help those same individuals. Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the dissent.
Pointing to the evidence that was before both Congress when it passed the ADA in 1990 and the Court in this case, Harlow said, "The Court is rewriting history when it says Congress did not have a strong enough record of state discrimination to include powerful, private rights-of-action remedies in the ADA. The history of discrimination against people with disabilities in this country is unfortunately all too obvious."
Noted Hanssens, "To reach its decision, the High Court had to avert its eyes from the abundantly plain fact that stark discrimination against those with disabilities has permeated every aspect of society, including state employment practices. Inaccessible state office buildings symbolize a wider-spread problem."
The decision overturns an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that had allowed two state employees, Ms. Garrett and Mr. Ash, to move forward with separate lawsuits brought under the ADA against the state of Alabama.
Garrett was demoted and eventually forced out of her nursing job at the University of Alabama after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Ash, a security guard with the Alabama Department of Youth Services, has chronic asthma and other respiratory and health problems. He sued to force his supervisors to enforce an existing no-smoking policy and to repair the agency-owned vehicle he was required to drive, which leaked carbon monoxide fumes into the passenger compartment.
Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS. Headquartered in New York, Lambda has regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.
For a link to the court's ruling, click here.
(University of Alabama v. Garrett, No. 99-1240)