Law & Courts

Justices Affirm States’ Immunity From Some Job-Related Lawsuits

By Mark Walsh — February 28, 2001 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Critical Race Theory Law Violates Teachers' Free Speech, ACLU Argues in New Lawsuit
The lawsuit alleges Oklahoma's law harms students of color and weakens what all students learn about the state's history.
4 min read
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, above, is named in a new lawsuit alleging that the state's recent law restricting teaching on race and sex is unconstitutional.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, above, is named in a new lawsuit alleging that the state's recent law restricting teaching on race and sex is unconstitutional.
Sue Ogrocki/AP
Law & Courts Parkland Victims' Families Reach $25M Settlement With Broward School District
The largest payments will go to the 17 families whose children or spouses were killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
3 min read
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
Law & Courts Justice Sotomayor Denies Bid to Block Vaccine Mandate for New York City School Employees
The Supreme Court justice's refusal involves the COVID-19 vaccine requirement in the nation's largest school district.
2 min read
In this Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 file photo, senior Clinical Research Nurse Ajithkumar Sukumaran prepares the COVID 19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London. British scientists are beginning a small study comparing how two experimental coronavirus vaccines might work when they are inhaled by people instead of being injected. In a statement on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, researchers at Imperial College London and Oxford University said a trial involving 30 people would test vaccines developed by both institutions when participants inhale the droplets in their mouths, which would directly target their respiratory systems.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Oct. 1 denied a request to block a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees of the New York City school system.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Law & Courts Here Are the Upcoming Supreme Court Cases That Matter for Schools
Major cases on school choice and religious schools will be heard, along with a case on whether school boards can reprimand outspoken members.
9 min read
In this June 8, 2021 photo, with dark clouds overhead, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington.
The U.S. Supreme Court's new term opens in early October with several cases that could impact K-12 schools.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP