May 17, 2004
In a split decision, on May 17th, the Supreme Court allowed citizens with disabilities to sue the state of Tennessee for monetary damages under Title II of the American With Disabilities Act (ADA), in the Tennessee v. Lane case. 2004 U.S. LEXIS 3386. Had the Supreme Court ruled that private citizens are prohibited from seeking relief from the state under Title II of the ADA, it may have severely limited the power of the ADA to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities against discrimination by state agencies. The Supreme Court had previously decreed that citizens may not sue states under Title I of the ADA, which covers employment. While the Court’s decision is a victory for advocates for people with disabilities, including people with mental illnesses, the ultimate impact of the decision is unclear.
The ADA protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination, and helps ensure equal opportunity. Title II of the ADA specifically addresses state and local governments, and protects against discrimination in accessing public services, programs or activities. Title II covers a broad spectrum of state and local government functions ranging from access to public areas to voting to treatment in public healthcare institutions.
This particular case involved a man who was wheelchair bound and unable to attend his criminal trial because there was no elevator, or any other form of access, to the courtroom. He sued the state of Tennessee and was joined in this suit by a reporter who was also wheelchair bound. The state of Tennessee claimed that it was immune from an ADA suit by private citizens on the basis of the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the 11th Amendment to provide immunity for a state against all actions filed by individual citizens. However, there are exceptions to 11th Amendment state immunity, one of which is the protection of rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The 14th Amendment includes assurances of Equal Protection and Due Process under the law. The Equal Protection Clause guarantees equal treatment of all citizens under the law, and the Due Process Clause requires fairness in public programs and procedures, including legal procedures. When determining whether an alleged violation of basic rights by a state is substantial enough to warrant an exception to state immunity, courts must assess the magnitude of the alleged state violations of 14th amendment rights, and whether the requested relief to remedy these violations is proportional to those violations.
In a previous case, Board of Education of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, the Supreme Court determined that there was not sufficient evidence to support a pattern of discrimination by state agencies against individuals with disabilities in the realm of employment. 531 U.S. 356. The Court also implied that even if there was enough evidence, the suggested relief was not proportional to the alleged violations. And so the Court decreed that citizens could not bring suit against states under Title I of the ADA, which covers discrimination in employment.
Unlike Garrett, the Court in Lane found that there is ample historical evidence of disability-based discrimination by states in access to public places such as courtrooms. Therefore, the Court concluded that Congress did not exceed its constitutional authority by granting individuals the right to seek damages against states under Title II, at least in the context of accessing public venues such as Courthouses.
While the decision in Tennessee v. Lane applies to physical access to courtrooms, the decision provides a basis for optimism that the Supreme Court will similarly uphold the right of individuals to sue states under Title II of the ADA to remedy violations of other Constitutional rights. For example, people with mental disabilities have historically been victimized by restrictive state policies, such as disenfranchisement from voting, excess institutionalization, and mandatory sterilization. In 1999, the Court ruled in Olmstead v. L. C. by Zimring. that Title II of the ADA requires individuals with mental disabilities to be placed in the least restrictive treatment possible, since excessive treatment can be stigmatizing and is a form of discrimination. 527 U.S. 581. While the Olmstead decision was qualified (i.e. there must be a doctor’s order that the individual is appropriate for less restrictive treatment and program resources are to be taken into account) the decision was still a benchmark in the history of protection from discrimination. Had the Court decided differently in Tennessee v. Lane, the potential impact of the Olmstead decision may have been mootsignificantly weakened. In the wake of the Court’s recent decision, the Olmstead decision is likely to remain good law.