Supreme Court Finds States Immune to ADA Suits

February 21, 2000 ( - A divided (5-4) Supreme Court ruled that states cannot be sued by individuals seeking money damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The opinion in Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett was the latest in a series of 5-4 rulings that have restricted the ability of the federal government to force its will on the states.

The ADA bans job discrimination against the disabled, requiring employers to offer reasonable accommodations to disabled people who are otherwise qualified to perform a job. Former President George Bush, who also filed a court brief supporting the two Alabama state employees who sued the state, signed the law in 1990.

Majority Rules

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist said that Congress had failed to show “a history and pattern of unconstitutional employment discrimination by the states against the disabled.”  Consequently the protection afforded states by the 11th Amendment against being sued in federal court took precedent over the 14th Amendment right of equal protection extended to individuals.

Expressing the opinion of the four dissenters, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that Congress had identified a widespread issue with unconstitutional discrimination against the disabled, saying the majority had usurped a power granted to Congress by the US Constitution.  He also cited Congressional findings of 300 examples of discrimination by state governments.

Joining Chief Justice Rehnquist were Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Duty Bound? 
The ruling reversed a federal appeals court decision that found the ADA overcame states’ constitutional immunity from such suits. 

The suits had been brought by Alabama state employees Patricia Garrett and Milton Ash.  Garrett had been a nurse at the University of Alabama for 17 years when she took a four-month leave to undergo treatment for breast cancer.  On her return, she claims to have been forced to take a lower-paying job – or quit.

Ash had been a security guard for the Alabama Department of Youth Services, who claimed that his severe asthma was aggravated by his employer’s refusal to enforce its no-smoking policy.

– Nevin Adams

The court’s opinion is at: .