Law & Courts

Justices Affirm States’ Immunity From Some Job-Related Lawsuits

By Mark Walsh — February 28, 2001 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that states are immune from lawsuits for damages under the main employment provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The 5-4 ruling was the court’s latest curtailment of congressional power based on the majority’s concern for states’ immunity from damages lawsuits, as provided under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ruling in the cases of two Alabama state employees, the majority said Congress lacked the power to make states subject to suits for employment discrimination under the 1990 federal disabilities law.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the majority in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett (Case No. 99-1240), said Congress had failed to make a strong case that disability discrimination by state governments was a significant enough problem to require the states to give up their 11th Amendment immunity from damages suits.

He was joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

Impact on Schools?

The court’s ruling does not generally apply to school districts and other local governments, which are not automatically considered to have status the same as a state under the framework of 11th Amendment immunity.

“The 11th Amendment does not extend its immunity to units of local government,” the chief justice said, citing a Supreme Court ruling from 1890.

But Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing in dissent, said the question of 11th Amendment immunity for local governments was not “as simple as the majority suggests.” Some lower federal courts have ruled that local governments in some states are the same as the state for 11th Amendment purposes, he noted. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Michael Simpson, a lawyer for the National Education Association who has followed the court’s federalism cases closely, said school districts in California, Maryland, and North Carolina had been found in other contexts to have 11th Amendment immunity from damages lawsuits.

In those states, he said, it is likely that individuals can no longer sue districts for damages under Title I of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination based on disability in employment actions. And the ruling clearly prohibits employees of state universities in all 50 states from pursuing damages claims under the ADA.

“The court has disenfranchised an entire class of employees from protection of the law,” Mr. Simpson said.

But the practical effects may be limited, because of state laws that also prohibit disability discrimination in employment, as well as the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which bars disability bias by recipients of federal funds.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Justices Affirm States’ Immunity From Some Job-Related Lawsuits

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