ADA Breaks Into Prison System

The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to state prisons, “at least insofar […]

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The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to state prisons, “at least insofar as it reaches conduct that could also be challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment,” according to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. The petitioner’s brief in the case of Goodman v. Georgia notes:

“The State has confined Goodman to a 12-foot by 3-foot cell for twenty-three to twenty-four hours each day because of the inaccessibility of other facilities in the Georgia State Prison. The cell is too narrow to permit him to turn his wheelchair around. And because the bed in his cell is inaccessible, Goodman is often forced to sleep in his wheelchair or risk injury in transferring to his bed.

“The State has not provided Goodman with accessible sanitary facilities. He has on a number of occasions experienced significant injuries (including broken bones) while attempting to transfer from his wheelchair to the toilet in his cell.”

Bazelon reports: “… he was forced to sit in his own feces and urine.”

At issue was whether a state prison inmate can sue for money damages under ADA Title II.

The state of Georgia did not seriously contest Goodman’s right to seek injunctive relief. An injunction is an order to stop doing something. The only cost is that engendered by the change in future behavior. Money damages, including possible punitive damages, can be enormously expensive, and they apply retroactively. The availability of money damages provides a greater incentive for compliance with ADA.

An injunction by the Supreme Court would theoretically compel states to provide accessible facilities for paraplegic inmates. However, the somewhat greater cost of doing this might lead states that, for instance, provide wider cells, not to comply. They could argue that the circumstances were different, and if they lost in the courts, the only expense would be that of providing accessible facilities in the future. Should such a case go again to the Supreme Court, which takes years, the state would retain funds saved by denying accessible facilities while the suit was pending?

Availability of money damages, which can amount to millions of dollars, provides the states an incentive to avoid lawsuits by complying with all ADA requirements, including those applicable to inmates with other physical and mental disabilities.

In its brief, the State of Georgia argued: “Title II of the ADA is not validly applied to allow state prisoners to bring suits for damages, as that title is not ‘appropriate legislation’ under (Section) 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Georgia continued, asserting: “ … more is required before such laws of general application can be applied to permit access to a sovereign state’s treasury.”

ADA Title II, Section 202. “Discrimination.” reads:

“Subject to the provisions of this title, no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.”

The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a state from denying: “ … any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Its Section 5 states: “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

The ADA is a federal law, which the Fourteenth Amendment gives Congress the right to enforce. The State of Georgia, however, in its brief, argued that it has “sovereign immunity:”

“The resolution of each of these questions should lead the Court to conclude that Congress did not validly abrogate state Eleventh Amendment immunity as applied to the class of cases where disabled inmates seek money damages ….”

The Eleventh Amendment reads:

“The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.”

The Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Scalia, writing for the unanimous court:

“This enforcement power includes the power to abrogate state sovereign immunity by authorizing private suits for damages against the states. … Thus, insofar as Title II creates a private cause of action for damages against the States for conduct that actually violates the Fourteenth Amendment, Title II validly abrogates state sovereign immunity.”

Bazelon calls the ruling “a narrow decision that leaves many questions unanswered.” But while leaving many questions unanswered, the Court’s decision leaves a door open— the door to money damages. This applies to any potential suit brought under ADA.

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