May 17, 2004
Supreme Court Upholds Right under ADA to Sue States for Discrimination
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
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
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.