October 10, 2000
Web posted at: 4:53 p.m. EDT (2053 GMT)
By Raju Chebium
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Patricia Garrett, a breast cancer survivor, sued her state employer, the University of Alabama Hospital, in 1997 under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The registered nurse alleged she was demoted from her position as head of the obstetrics and gynecology department after she returned from sick leave. She alleged disability discrimination.
Also in 1997, Milton Ash, an asthmatic security guard for the state-funded Alabama Department of Youth Services, sued his employer under the ADA.
He contended he was subject to discrimination because the state failed to enforce its no-smoking policy in the gatehouse where he continues to work, and neglected to fix the state vehicle he drove so that exhaust fumes did not seep into the passenger compartment.
The state of Alabama argued successfully in a federal trial court that the lawsuits should be dismissed in the interest of preserving state sovereignty. But the state lost at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta last year.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide the matter. Oral arguments in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, Patricia, a consolidation of the Garrett and Ash cases, are scheduled for Wednesday.
The court will decide the broader constitutional issue of whether Congress overstepped its authority by empowering private individuals to sue states in federal court by invoking the ADA. The narrower issue before the court is whether state employees can file ADA lawsuits against their employers.
The state of Alabama advances state's rights arguments in documents filed with the high court. It alleges that Congress violated the 11th Amendment, which gives states immunity from federal lawsuits filed by private individuals.
Congress exceeded its purview when it wrote into the language of the ADA provisions stripping this immunity, the state alleges.
Lawyers for Garrett, Ash and the U.S. Department of Justice argue that Congress has the power to strip states' legal immunity under the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.
They contend that disability discrimination was so rampant and entrenched in society that Congress felt compelled to pass the ADA to give disabled Americans the same civil rights that non-disabled people enjoy.
The significance of the case
Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, said if the court sides with Alabama, "state employers could disagree against their employees and not be held accountable under the ADA."
Andy Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said disabled people fear the greater danger of having their civil rights eroded.
The ADA, sponsored by President Bush, was passed in 1990 with bipartisan support because Congress found rampant discrimination against disabled people, much of it by states, Imparato said.
A ruling in favor of Alabama could open the door for challenges to other federal statutes that protect the disabled, like the Fair Housing Act or special education measures, he said.
Imparato said the disabled community fears the high court might rule against Congress if its recent trend of "judicial activism" to expand state's rights is any indication.
One case he mentioned was Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, which the high court decided last January. The court found that Congress violated state sovereignty by allowing private individuals to sue the states under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The court said federal law must be "congruent and proportional" to the problem it serves to solve.
Alabama relies heavily on the Kimel ruling, arguing that if the court found for the state in Kimel, it should rule similarly in Alabama. The state argues that the ADA is incongruent and disproportionate because it places too much hardship on states, which do not discriminate against the disabled in the first place.
ADA critics like Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said fear that the ADA will overturned in its entirety is "overstated."
If Alabama wins, people would not be able to sue states for damages -- or money -- under the ADA, he said. They would still be able to sue for injunctive relief, namely to seek court orders to force the state to take or give up a particular course of discriminatory action.
"The Constitution is what it is because people are not supposed to able to get around it even for politically popular sets of causes," Olson said.
"The Supreme Court is good to preserve state sovereignty. If it continues this logic and says states cannot be sued for money damages, it really is not an earthquake," he said.
Details of the state's argument
Alabama argued in court papers that it should not have to comply with the ADA because Congress did not prove that states were discriminating against the disabled, thereby providing no rationale for such a sweeping law. When the ADA was passed, all 50 states already had statutes barring disability discrimination, the state contends.
"No pattern or practice of state equal-protections violations exist, when it comes to alleged employment or public-access discrimination by state governments," Alabama argued. "Congress did not show, or even try to show, that the states have previously violated the constitutional rights of the disabled."
Alabama also argued that its commitment to preserving disability rights began as far back as 1858, when an institute for the deaf was established. In the 1960s, the state passed laws to give disabled applicants preference for state jobs, the lawyers argued.
Though state law "centers on giving individuals the right to seek a job, not the right to file a lawsuit," disabled people who suffer discrimination can seek "equitable and monetary remedies" from the Alabama, the lawyers said.
Constitutional rationale for ADA
Attorneys for Garrett and Ash and the federal government argued that the 14th Amendment overrides the 11th Amendment in this case and provides plenty of constitutional rationale for the ADA.
The 14th Amendment bars states from passing laws that "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The laws must also grant all residents "equal protection of the laws." Section Five of that amendment says Congress has the power to enforce the provisions of the amendment.
Government attorneys said Congress passed the ADA after years of study showed that the disabled were subjected to "a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness in our society." Requiring states to comply with the ADA "falls squarely within Congress's comprehensive legislative power" under the amendment, the government argued.
As for assertions that state laws vigorously protect the disabled, "nothing could be further from the truth," the government said.
"Petitioners grossly exaggerate the coverage of those laws," the government wrote.
Narrow scope of the case
The case involves challenges to Titles I and II of the ADA.
Title I outlaws employment discrimination by public and private employers, requiring them to make "reasonable accommodations" for disabled workers.
Title II bans discrimination in tax-supported buildings and services, requiring state and local governments to make "reasonable modifications" to buildings and facilities to allow the disabled greater access.
Private employers would still have to comply with all of the ADA's sweeping mandates regardless of the outcome of this case, according to Deborah Mattison and Sandra Reiss, attorneys for Garrett and Ash.
Additionally, the federal government would still have to protect the
rights of the disabled under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The ADA applies
to state and local governments and the private sector.