Federal Judge Now Finds States Shielded From Title II ADA Suits

September 04, 2001 (PLANSPONSOR.com) ? A federal judge has reversed himself and now finds that states and their agencies are immune from suits under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That section addresses discrimination by any “public entity” in its provision of “services, programs or activities.”

Judge Harvey Bartle III of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania had previously refused to dismiss Jones v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, finding that a compelling majority of federal appellate courts had previously concluded that states have no 11th Amendment immunity under Title II.

On Second Thought

Now Bartle says he had to reconsider that ruling in light of the decision by the US Supreme Court in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett.

In that case, the nation’s highest court said that states are immune from suit under Title I of the ADA, the section that covers employment discrimination. That ruling said that Congress had not intended to abrogate the states’ 11th Amendment rights, since they had identified no “history and pattern of unconstitutional discrimination” by the states against the disabled.

While acknowledging that Garrett dealt only with Title I ? and that the court had expressly declined to make a Title II coverage determination – the District court still said it believed the analytical framework from Garret was applicable to this case.

Present Case

Plaintiff Michael Jones, who is blind, said he was mistreated by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and its Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services after he enrolled in job training classes. Jones said he was repeatedly expelled from those classes and forced to appeal several times to regain entrance. As a result, he said the 16-week training course required nearly three years to complete.

Jones insisted on acting as his own attorney despite efforts by the court to appoint an alternative. Three lawyers in a row turned down the case.

11th “Hour”

Senior Deputy Attorney General Claudia M. Tesoro successfully argued that the court should reconsider its January 2000 decision on the basis that the Supreme Court has supported a trend of recognizing 11th Amendment immunity for states. Although the 3rd Circuit has yet to weigh in on the question, Tesoro noted that the 7th Circuit and several trial judges have already extended Garrett’s reasoning to bar claims under Title II.

When subjecting states to laws, Bartle found that the power of Congress is limited to legislating to enforce the 14th Amendment. In the case of the ADA, he said, Congress was seeking equal protection for the disabled.

The Garrett court elaborated on that point, saying, “states are not required by the 14th Amendment to make special accommodations for the disabled, so long as their actions toward such individuals are rational.” Judge Bartle found that the application of Title II to states went too far, since Congress never identified a “history and pattern” of discrimination by the states against the disabled.

However, critics of the decision suggest that states could still find their actions challenged since ADA suits could still be brought against individual state officials.