The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Civil Rights Monitor

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The CIVIL RIGHTS MONITOR is a quarterly publication that reports on civil rights issues pending before the three branches of government. The Monitor also provides a historical context within which to assess current civil rights issues. Back issues of the Monitor are available through this site. Browse or search the archives

Volume 11 No 4

Disability Rights in the Supreme Court

A major challenge to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was successful in the Supreme Court of the United States (University of Alabama Board of Trustees v. Garrett (99-1240))

On February 21, 2001, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in a disability discrimination case, University of Alabama Board of Trustees v. Garrett, severely limiting the scope of the ADA as applied to state employees. Continuing its assault on civil rights in favor of States rights, as detailed in the Spring 2000 MONITOR (Vol. 11, No. 1), the Supreme Court ruled that State employees do not have the right to sue their employer for violations of the ADA, a federal statute. State employees may still sue for damages under state laws or file disability discrimination complaints with the Department of Justice or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who can sue states on their behalf. However, the Court's ruling severely limits the enforceability of the ADA within the states, placing the States Eleventh Amendment rights over the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Disability rights and civil rights groups were deeply disappointed by the Garrett decision and the message it sends regarding the rights of individuals with disabilities. On February 22, 2001, LCCR issued a statement regarding the Garrett decision, which read, in part:

"The Leadership Conference abhors discrimination in all forms. Discrimination based upon disability, particularly by a state, is absolutely intolerable. The decision in Garrett continues a disturbing line of reasoning from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, in which the conservative majority curbs equal protections for the disabled and the aged under the guise of "states rights". Garrett only furthers this shameful erosion of civil rights for all Americans by our nation's highest court."


On October 11, 2000 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Garrett, a case consisting of two consolidated employment discrimination cases filed against the state of Alabama. The plaintiff in the first case was a woman with breast cancer and in the second, a man with severe asthma.

One respondent in the case, Patricia Garrett, was a registered nurse at the University Hospital at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) when, in late August 1994, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Garret underwent a lumpectomy, node removal and biopsy and began radiation treatments in October 1994 and chemotherapy in January 1995. Her supervisor pressured her to take leave or to transfer to a lesser job, but Garrett made clear to her supervisor that she wished to continue to carry the full duties of her job and continued to satisfactorily perform those duties. Throughout her treatment period she faced extensive harassment, including threats of being transferred and of losing access to the computer system.

Garrett's physician advised her that the uncomfortable work environment was adversely affecting the success of her treatment, and suggested a leave for the duration of her chemotherapy, as was permitted under the Hospital's Employee handbook. When Garrett returned in July 1995, her supervisor initially refused to allow Garrett to resume her old position, but the Hospital's personnel Department urged the supervisor to reconsider. Two weeks after her return, Garrett's supervisor declared that Garrett could not successfully perform her duties and that Garrett must quit, accept a demotion, or be discharged. Garrett requested that at the least she be retained in her position until October 1995, for insurance purposes, but her request was refused. Garrett then filed her lawsuit, seeking damages and alleging, among other things, that UAB's action violated her rights under the ADA.

The second respondent, Milton Ash, began working as a Security Officer for the Alabama Department of Youth Services (ADYS) in September 1993. Ash performed his job well, receiving a promotion in 1996. Throughout his tenure with ADYS, Ash suffered from severe chronic asthma and other respiratory disabilities. Between 1993 and 1996, Ash repeatedly requested two accommodations to eliminate conditions that were exacerbating his respiratory condition. First was that ADYS enforce its "no-smoking" rule in the Gatehouse, where he was confined in a small workspace with fellow employees who violated the rule. The second was for the repair of ADYS vehicles Ash was required to drive, so that they did not emit carbon monoxide fumes into the passenger compartment. ADYS took no steps to accommodate either of these requests. In July 1996, Ash was diagnosed with sleep apnea. His doctor urged that ADYS accommodate Ash, who was then assigned to rotating shifts, by transferring him to the daylight shift. ADYS agreed to do so when a vacancy occurred. Thereafter, Ash filed an EEOC charge alleging that ADYS had violated the ADA by inter alia, failing to enforce its no-smoking rule and failing to fix the carbon monoxide leaks in its vehicles. After the charge was filed, two openings occurred on the daylight shift, which were given to two security officers junior to Ash, who had not claimed a medical need to transfer. Ash then filed his lawsuit, alleging that ADYS had violated the ADA by denying him the reasonable accommodations of enforcing its no-smoking rule, repairing the carbon monoxide leaks in the vehicles, and transferring him to the daylight shift. He alleged that ADYS further violated the ADA by retaliating against him for asserting his ADA rights via his initial EEOC charge.

The complaints were dismissed by the District Court on Eleventh Amendment grounds (sovereign immunity of states). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this decision and the state of Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.


The complaints in these consolidated cases alleged that the complained-of actions violated both Title I and Title II of the ADA. Title I deals exclusively with employment, and covers private, state and local governmental employers with 15 or more employees. Title II forbids discrimination by public entities with respect to any of their programs, services or activities, and thus includes many diverse areas in addition to employment. The Title I substantive scheme says protection is accorded only to "qualified individual[s] with a disability." In this regard "disability" is defined in the ADA as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of the individual." A "qualified individual with a disability" is one "who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." Both titles authorize an aggrieved individual to sue his or her employer.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether the Eleventh or the Fourteenth Amendment should take precedence in the enforcement of the ADA in the states. (The Court declined to consider the Title II claim, noting that neither party had briefed the question of whether Title II is available for employment discrimination claims, when Title I expressly deals with the subject). The Eleventh Amendment grants states immunity from federal suits filed by private individuals. However, under certain circumstances, legislation passed by Congress to protect Fourteenth Amendment rights can override this immunity. When Congress has enacted "appropriate legislation" to enforce the equal protection guarantees of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, Section 5 of the Amendment holds states responsible for enforcing this legislation. In passing the ADA, Congress made clear their intent to lift the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity. The question before the Court, however, was whether or not the ADA, as enacted by Congress in 1990, was in fact "appropriate legislation" and therefore justified in overriding the states' Eleventh Amendment rights.

In other words, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether employees of the State of Alabama may recover money damages for the State's failure to comply with the provisions of Title I of the ADA.


On February 21, 2001, the Supreme Court issued their 5-4 decision in Garrett, ruling in favor of the State of Alabama. The Court's opinion was written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, who was joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, O'Connor and Kennedy. Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg signed a strong dissent written by Justice Breyer.

The Court ruled that to require states to pay damages to individuals who have filed suits under the federal ADA is in violation of the Eleventh Amendment. Chief Justice Rehnquist asserts that Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment only applies to Federal legislation that is based on "a pattern of discrimination by the States which violates the Fourteenth Amendment... and is] congruent and proportional to the targeted violation."

Upon reviewing the legislative record of the ADA, the Court concluded that there was no evidence for such a pattern of discrimination and that the ADA's requirement that employers accommodate the needs of disabled employees "far exceeds what is constitutionally required." In response to the extensive list of allegations made by individuals against states during ADA hearings (and appended in the Court's dissenting opinion), Rehnquist notes that these incidents were primarily anecdotal and that few involved State actions, thus "[falling] short of even suggesting the pattern of unconstitutional discrimination on which Section 5 legislation must be based."

Therefore, the Court contended, the ADA does not fit the requirements for "appropriate legislation" and thus is not a valid basis for infringing upon the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity from suits by their citizens.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer finds fault with the Court's strict standards in determining whether or not Congress sufficiently showed a history of State discrimination prior to passing the ADA. He notes that the Court's standards in Garrett are unusually harsh and not supported by precedent. He argues, "we [the Court] have never required the sort of extensive investigation of each piece of evidence that the Court appears to contemplate." Breyer goes on to state his belief that "Congress reasonably could have concluded that the remedy before us constitutes an appropriate way to enforce this basic equal protection requirement," and notes that this "is all the Constitution requires."


Though State employees still have the option of filing a complaint with the Department of Justice or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Supreme Court's decision in the Garrett case has stripped them of the right to sue their employer directly, a right that is guaranteed to all Federal and private sector employees. State employees may also still sue their employer based on State anti-discrimination statutes, but such laws tend to offer less protection and fewer remedies than the ADA. By denying State employees the right to sue an employer who discriminates against them on the basis of age or disability, the Court has removed the main legal recourse that these State employees have against employment discrimination, as well as a major tool in the enforcement of the ADA.

On January 11, 2000, the Supreme Court issued a similar decision in the case of Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents (98-791). Also in a 5-4 majority, the Court held in Kimel that older Americans cannot sue state agencies for damages under the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA).

In response to the Kimel decision, Senators Jim Jefford (R-VT) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) introduced the "Older Workers Rights Restoration Act of 2000" (S.3008) on September 6, 2000. The bill aims to restore the right to sue for damages to some State employees by amending the ADEA to require that States waive their sovereign immunity as a condition of receiving federal funds for programs or activities and allow employees of these programs to file suit against the State for violations of the ADEA.

Due to the strong parallels between the Kimel and Garrett cases, it is likely that legislation similar to the Kennedy-Jeffords bill will be introduced to amend the ADA in response to the Garrett decision.

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