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Guest Article

Individuals May Not Sue States Under ADA in Federal Court

Summary: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state employees could not sue their employers for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act because the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants state government employers immunity from lawsuits.
(April 1, 2001) - States may not be sued by individuals in federal court for violations of Title I of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, 121 S. Ct. 955 (S. Ct., Feb. 21, 2001).

This also means that state employees cannot sue their employers for benefits under the ADA. However, the ruling does not extend to lawsuits against local government employers.

Facts of the Case

Patricia Garrett sued the University of Alabama at Birmingham in federal district court for demoting her due to her breast cancer. She claimed that this violated ADA Title I, which prohibits states and other employers from "discriminat[ing] against a qualified individual with a disability because of th[at] disability . . . in regard to . . . terms, conditions and privileges of employment." Benefits are one of the terms and conditions of employment.

Garrett's case was consolidated for appeal with the ADA claim of Milton Ash, who sued the Alabama Department of Youth Services for failing to accommodate his asthma.

The district court ruled that the claims could not be brought against Alabama in federal court because of the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants states immunity from such suits. The appeals court reversed, determining that Congress validly nullified that immunity in the ADA by exercising its power under the 14th Amendment, which requires states to give equal protection of the laws to all persons and permits the federal government to force the states to do so. Alabama appealed this ruling.

No Pattern of Discrimination

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Title I did not remedy every pattern of unconstitutional discrimination by the states. While accounts of such discrimination were in a task force report submitted to Congress before the ADA was enacted, the Court characterized them as "unexamined" and "anecdotal."

The ADA's reasonable accommodation requirement far exceeds what is constitutionally required, the Court said. In addition, the decision noted that in City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432 (S. Ct., 1985), the Court rejected the argument that state laws should be examined closely when determining if they unconstitutionally discriminate against persons with disabilities. Therefore, in the Court's view, the 14th Amendment does not require states to make special accommodations for the disabled, as long as the states' actions toward those individuals are "rational."

To that end, the Court noted that the ADA's legislative record failed to show that Congress identified a history and pattern of irrational employment discrimination by the states against the disabled. Furthermore, statements in House and Senate committee reports indicate that Congress targeted the ADA at employment discrimination in the private sector.

While states are immune from individuals' suits in federal court, localities are not, the Court explained. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Justice may sue states in federal court for ADA violations on an individual's behalf. Other laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and state statutes, prohibit states from discriminating based on disability and states may be sued in state court.


This ruling means that state employees must assert ADA claims of discrimination against their state employers in state, rather than federal, court. County and other local government employees appear to still have the ability to sue for benefits under the ADA in federal court. Typically, federal courts are better suited to address federal statutes and regulations.

Excerpted from the April 2001 supplement to Employer's Guide to Self-Insuring Health Benefits, ©Thompson Publishing Group, Inc., 2001. All rights reserved.

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