States Given Immunity in Disability Suits

No Damages in Cases Under Federal ADA

See the original article in The San Francisco Chronicle

Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published 4:00 am, Thursday, February 22, 2001

A divided U.S. Supreme Court unfurled its states’-rights banner again yesterday to protect state governments from federal suits for damages by disabled employees. Advocates for the disabled called the ruling dismaying but largely irrelevant in California because of strong protections provided by state law.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the court said Congress had failed to justify a section of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act that allowed public employees to seek damages for discrimination based on a physical or mental handicap.

A similar ruling last year barred state employees from suing for age discrimination under federal law. The same conservative majority has issued a series of decisions since 1995 limiting federal authority, and elevating the states, on issues such as overtime pay, handgun background checks, gun possession near schools, suits by domestic violence victims and regulation of isolated wetlands.

Lawyers on both sides of the issue called yesterday’s ruling limited. The court specified that it was barring only suits for damages by state employees and was not limiting suits by the federal government on employees’ behalf, ADA suits by private employees, suits that seek court orders rather than damages, or suits for equal access to government programs and services.

The ruling does not affect suits under state disability laws, including California’s.

“California remedies are probably stronger than the federal remedies,” said attorney Sid Wolinsky of Disability Rights Advocates in Oakland. “The only thing it affects is the forum. You have to go into state court rather than into federal court.”

He also said most disability suits against government agencies seek injunctions — requiring wheelchair ramps or accessible rest rooms — rather than damages. Federal judges can still issue injunctions against states.

The Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, which submitted arguments in favor of limiting the scope, praised the ruling but agreed it was relatively narrow.

The court “wisely declined to let the Americans with Disabilities Act be used as a tool to disable the states as viable, independent entities in the constitutional framework,” said foundation attorney Stephen McCutcheon. Still, he said, the court did not establish a broad new principle and did not appear to be allowing a “wholesale attack on the civil rights gains that we’ve made over the past 40 years.”

However, one liberal law professor said that “a lot of civil rights laws might be open to challenge” under the rationale.

Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of Southern California said earlier rulings limiting the right to sue states in federal court had found that Congress failed to offer evidence of abuses by state governments. In the disability case, Chemerinsky said, Congress made detailed findings that state and local governments had discriminated, but the court said it wasn’t persuaded that the problem was severe enough to justify suits for damages in federal court.

He said the same logic could be used to attack laws allowing states to be sued for denying equal pay to women and for employment and voting practices that have harmful effects on minorities.

The ADA, passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment and in government programs and services and requires employers, public agencies and businesses to provide reasonable accommodations.

In yesterday’s ruling in a case from Alabama, the majority opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist cited the states’ constitutional shield from private suits for damages in federal court, and it said it could be overcome only by congressional findings showing that state governments were violating constitutional rights.

Congress’ findings before passage of the ADA, Rehnquist said, contain only “minimal evidence” of discrimination by states against the disabled.

Dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer said the majority was ignoring extensive congressional evidence of “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.”

Added to evidence of discriminatory treatment against the disabled in society, the congressional findings justify a broadly protective law, Breyer said.

Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley and author of one of the main briefs in the case, agreed. The court showed a “shocking disregard” for well-documented, historical discrimination against people with disabilities, she said.

The court has not yet acted on Gov. Gray Davis’ Supreme Court appeal in another ADA case, involving the $3-per-year fee that California charged the disabled for parking placards.

Criticized by disability advocates for jeopardizing the ADA, the governor announced last June that the state would settle the case and withdraw the appeal.