U.S. Supreme Court Cuts Back Protections of the ADA
On Wednesday, February 21, the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that individuals cannot recover money damages against States for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This decision, while directly applicable only to employment discrimination lawsuits filed by individuals against states, raises concerns that the Court may rule similarly in future cases addressing more broadly the rights of individuals to sue states under the ADA.
Wednesday's decision in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett grew out of two separate employment discrimination lawsuits filed by state employees against the state of Alabama. In one, a nurse with breast cancer sued the University of Alabama after being demoted when she returned to work following treatment for breast cancer. In the second, a correctional officer sued the state for refusing to accommodate his chronic asthma and other medical problems. Both of these individuals sought monetary damages for employment discrimination under Title I of the ADA. The state of Alabama defended by arguing that the Congress exceeded its authority by granting individuals with disabilities the right to sue states under the ADA.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions reinforcing the sovereignty of states and limiting the power of Congress to enact laws creating legal remedies for individuals against states. The Court has held that the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants general immunity to states from being sued by its own citizens as well as by citizens of other states. However, according to the Court, this immunity is not absolute. For example, Congress has the power to override a state's Eleventh amendment immunity when it does so under authority granted by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For example, a law enacted under Congress' authority to ensure that U.S. citizens are not denied equal protection of the laws may, under certain circumstances, validly override Eleventh Amendment immunity.
The Plaintiffs in the Garrett case argued that Title I of the ADA is an example of a law that validly overrides Eleventh Amendment immunity. However, the Supreme Court disagreed. It held that Congress failed to furnish sufficient evidence of pervasive unconstitutional discrimination against persons with disabilities by states when it enacted the ADA. Therefore, the Court concluded that private individuals may not sue states under Title I to recover money damages.
What does the Garrett decision mean for people with mental illnesses?
The immediate effect of the Garrett decision is fairly limited. It applies only to ADA Title I (employment discrimination) lawsuits filed by individuals against states. It does not effect Title I lawsuits filed by individuals against private companies, or against local governmental entities (counties or municipalities). It also does not apply to lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency with authority to enforce Title I of the ADA.
Persons with mental illnesses who feel that they have been the victims of employment discrimination by the state still have options available to them. One option is to seek redress under state laws protecting the rights of persons with disabilities in employment. You can obtain information about these laws from your state's protection and advocacy agency.
A second option is to file a complaint with the EEOC (or the state or local agency that has been designated to enforce Title I of the ADA). However, due to lack of resources, the EEOC directly files lawsuits in behalf of claimants in a very small percentage of cases that come before it.
Third, while Garrett has eliminated the availability of monetary damages as a remedy for discrimination, the Supreme Court noted that injunctive relief is still available to individuals who file federal lawsuits against states under Title I. This could include Court orders directing employers to cease discriminatory actions (including reinstatement of employment) and possibly back pay (i.e. reimbursement of salary lost due to discrimination) under certain circumstances.
Finally, consumer and family advocates should continue their efforts to promote employment opportunities for persons with mental illnesses in state governments, as well as other segments of the employment community. In recent years, a number of states have engaged in affirmative steps to provide meaningful employment opportunities for consumers. For example, the Ohio state mental health agency has called for a "five-fold increase in consumer employment in the next five years." NAMI believes that all state mental health agencies should set similar employment targets. And, employment opportunities should be created in other agencies within state governments as well.
See NAMI E-News Vol. 01-27, "NAMI Calls on State Agencies to Employ Consumers" (October 3, 2000) for more information on strategies to promote employment opportunities for persons with mental illnesses. http://www.nami.org/pressroom/001002.html
Potential Threats to Title II of the ADA
There are concerns that the Supreme Court's reasoning in Garrett could be applied in the future to cases filed under Title II of the ADA. Title II prohibits discrimination in the provision of (non-employment) services by state and local governments. This section of the ADA is very important to people with mental illnesses because it intended to remedy discriminatory policies or practices by state or local governments.
The Supreme Court has issued several important decisions in the past few years under this section of the ADA. For example, in L.C. v. Olmstead, 119 S.Ct 2176 (1999), the Supreme Court held that Title II requires states to provide services to institutionalized individuals with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. This decision applies not only to individuals who are currently institutionalized but very possibly to individuals who are at risk of institutionalization if they don't receive appropriate treatment and services. And, in Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey, 118 S. Ct 1952 (1998), the Supreme Court held that the non-discrimination requirements of Title II apply to inmates with disabilities in local and state jails and prisons.
There are several Eleventh Amendment challenges to Title II pending in lower federal Courts that could eventually reach the Supreme Court. Were the Supreme Court to apply its rationale in Garrett to Title II, this could spell the demise of important cases like Olmstead and Yeskey. NAMI is working in coalition with other advocacy organizations for persons with disabilities to minimize the negative short and long-term impacts of the Garrett decision. NAMI will keep readers apprised of further developments.
The Garrett decision can be found at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/00pdf/99-1240.pdf