Tennessee vs. Lane: Will the Supreme Court narrow Title II Jurisdiction of the ADA?

write essay p>A case is currently making its way through the Supreme Court which may narrow the jurisdiction of Title […]

p>A case is currently making its way through the Supreme Court which may narrow the jurisdiction of Title II of the ADA.  Readers will remember that in March 2001, Access Press had an article about the case, Garrett vs. University of Alabama Board of Trustees.  In that case, the court held that while state employees could sue for injunctive relief such as changes in policies, they could not sue the state for monetary damages.

When Garrett was accepted for review by the Supreme Court, disability advocates nationwide began the process of getting their particular states to support the ADA's language allowing for federal lawsuits against states.  Section 502 of the ADA states in part: “A state shall not be immune under the eleventh amendment of the Constitution of the United States from any action in Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction for a violation of this Act.”

On the other hand, several states began filing or joining briefs encouraging the Supreme Court to declare this section of the ADA unconstitutional and to uphold the immunity of states against lawsuits under the ADA.  Minnesota has a lot to be proud of in this regard because our Attorney-General, Mike Hatch, wrote the leading brief arguing that states were not immune from lawsuits under the ADA.  Several states signed on to Minnesota's brief.  Of course there were also several states which signed on to a brief supporting the state of Alabama which argued that states were immune from lawsuits under the ADA.

Readers will remember that ultimately the Supreme Court in Garrett found that Congress had surpassed its authority by attempting to expand the right of plaintiffs to sue states under Title I of the ADA.  Thus, the Plaintiff in Garrett, who was terminated after she contracted breast cancer, could ask that no such discriminatory policy be used on someone else, but she couldn't sue for monetary damages caused by losing her job.

In Garrett, the court set out various ways that a state could be found to be exempt from the general 11th amendment immunity provided to states by the constitution.  Congress could implement legislation limiting that immunity if:

  • it was Congress' intent by such legislation to make such a limitation
  • Congress had authority to make such a limitation.

In Garrett, the Court held that Congress had indeed intended to limit immunity, but it did not have the authority to do so.  The court said that such immunity from suit could only be granted if states implicitly waived their right to such immunity by accepting federal funding under a statute.  Thus, for example, lawsuits against the state requesting monetary damages for plaintiffs could be upheld under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act because states accept federal money and make an implicit contract by accepting the money that they will not discriminate against persons with disabilities.  States can also explicitly waive their right to immunity.  Minnesota enacted a law specifically waiving its right to immunity in 2001, to counteract Garrett.  Minnesota was the only state to pass such a law.  However a case was brought to challenge the legislation. The 8th circuit Court of Appeals, (our appellate circuit) struck down that law in late 2002, stating that Minnesota's law was unclear as to what constituted a “court of competent jurisdiction.”

Advocates had their first chance to tackle the issue of whether or not state immunity would also apply to Title II cases involving the state when a case was accepted for review by the Supreme Court (Hason vs. California Board of Medical Practice).  Again the battle lines were drawn and advocates from states approached their individual attorneys-general asking them to join a brief supporting the limitation of immunity (disability advocates' position) or upholding a state's right not to be sued under the ADA.  The case in question involved a man who had taken his courses in medical school and was attempting to pass his medical boards to become a doctor.  He argued that the state medical board would not permit him to get a license because of his mental illness.  Again, Minnesota's attorney-general wrote the brief supporting the position that states were not immune to being sued under the ADA.  Again, there was a brief filed by other states supporting the “states rights” position that states cannot be sued under the ADA.

As this case was in California, there was a very strong politically active disability community.  Ultimately, disability advocates were able to convince California's attorney-general to withdraw the petition from the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then dismissed the case.

This was an immense victory for people with disabilities, but we knew that it was in effect a bullet temporarily dodged.  Another case was already coming down the pike on the same issue of state immunity under Title II of the ADA.

Tennessee vs. Lane

The Lane case was already winding its way through the appellate circuit when Hason was dismissed.  The main issue before the Tennessee state court was whether or not states are immune from lawsuits under the ADA for monetary damages by private citizens.  The case in question involved six paraplegics and quadriplegics who used wheelchairs and found it impossible to gain access, either as employees or parties in interest, to small town courthouses and courtrooms in Tennessee. Tennessee argued that states are immune from such lawsuits under the ADA.  State district court found for Tennessee.  Lane appealed, and the sixth circuit court of appeals reversed, finding that Tennessee was not immune from such lawsuits.  The case was accepted for review by the Supreme Court.  Oral argument was held in this case on January 14, 2004.

The primary plaintiff, George Lane, a paraplegic, was arrested and arraigned for reckless driving.  For his arraignment he crawled up two flights of steps to get to his assigned courtroom.  But when the actual trial came about, he refused to be carried or to crawl into the courtroom.  He sat outside the courthouse, and his attorney came out from

time to time to tell him what was going on.   Mr. Lane and the other plaintiffs, who had had accessibility problems in other local courts, argued that courtrooms were not wheelchair accessible and that therefore people who used wheelchairs were denied the right of participation in their cases.  During oral argument, Tennessee's Solicitor General did admit that if the Supreme Court did not uphold the jurisdiction of the ADA in this case, there would be no remedy. The state of Tennessee apparently does not have appropriate access requirements against architectural barriers that would apply to the state court system.

Again, Attorney-General Mike Hatch and the state of Minnesota offered a brief, arguing that states are not immune from lawsuits under the ADA. Through the zealous work of disability advocates, the following states either joined Minnesota's brief or submitted their own briefs: Connecticut; Delaware; Illinois; Kansas; Massachusetts; Missouri; New Mexico; New York; Vermont; Washington; Wisconsin.

Additionally, the Bush administration, through the Department of Justice, submitted a brief arguing that states should not be immune from lawsuits if they did not make their courthouses accessible to persons with disabilities.  The following states joined Tennessee in arguing that states were immune from suit under the ADA: Alabama; Nebraska; Nevada; North Dakota; Oklahoma; ; Utah; Wyoming.

The Supreme Court will come out with a decision, probably later this spring or summer.

What will this decision mean in Minnesota?

At this point, the question of what happens next is merely speculation. We don't know if the Supreme Court will find that individual cases, such as cases involving removal of barriers in courthouses, are subject to lawsuits under the ADA, whereas other cases under Title II are not.  We don't know if the Supreme Court will find that states cannot be sued under Title II of the ADA.  Even if the worst case scenario happens, and the Supreme Court determines that states are immune from suits under Title II of the ADA, counties and cities will not be immune from lawsuits under the ADA.  We should also remember that the Minnesota Human Rights Act is strong on the issue of physical and program access.  Plaintiffs can still bring a lawsuit in state court if the state fails to remove architectural barriers.

It's too early to get panicked about what an adverse decision would mean in this case.  All of us will have to stay tuned for further developments this summer.

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