U.S. Supreme Court
Cuts Back Protections of the ADA
For Immediate Release, February 24, 2001
On Wednesday, February 21, the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that
individuals cannot recover money damages against States for violations
of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This decision, while
directly applicable only to employment discrimination lawsuits filed by
individuals against states, raises concerns that the Court may rule
similarly in future cases addressing more broadly the rights of
individuals to sue states under the ADA.
Wednesday's decision in Board of Trustees of the University of
Alabama v. Garrett grew out of two separate employment discrimination
lawsuits filed by state employees against the state of Alabama. In one,
a nurse with breast cancer sued the University of Alabama after being
demoted when she returned to work following treatment for breast cancer.
In the second, a correctional officer sued the state for refusing to
accommodate his chronic asthma and other medical problems. Both of these
individuals sought monetary damages for employment discrimination under
Title I of the ADA. The state of Alabama defended by arguing that the
Congress exceeded its authority by granting individuals with
disabilities the right to sue states under the ADA.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions
reinforcing the sovereignty of states and limiting the power of Congress
to enact laws creating legal remedies for individuals against states.
The Court has held that the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
grants general immunity to states from being sued by its own citizens as
well as by citizens of other states. However, according to the Court,
this immunity is not absolute. For example, Congress has the power to
override a state's Eleventh amendment immunity when it does so under
authority granted by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
For example, a law enacted under Congress' authority to ensure that U.S.
citizens are not denied equal protection of the laws may, under certain
circumstances, validly override Eleventh Amendment immunity.
The Plaintiffs in the Garrett case argued that Title I of the ADA is
an example of a law that validly overrides Eleventh Amendment immunity.
However, the Supreme Court disagreed. It held that Congress failed to
furnish sufficient evidence of pervasive unconstitutional discrimination
against persons with disabilities by states when it enacted the ADA.
Therefore, the Court concluded that private individuals may not sue
states under Title I to recover money damages.
What does the Garrett decision mean for people with mental illnesses?
The immediate effect of the Garrett decision is fairly limited. It
applies only to ADA Title I (employment discrimination) lawsuits filed
by individuals against states. It does not effect Title I lawsuits filed
by individuals against private companies, or against local governmental
entities (counties or municipalities). It also does not apply to
lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC),
the federal agency with authority to enforce Title I of the ADA.
Persons with mental illnesses who feel that they have been the
victims of employment discrimination by the state still have options
available to them. One option is to seek redress under state laws
protecting the rights of persons with disabilities in employment. You
can obtain information about these laws from your state's protection and
A second option is to file a complaint with the EEOC (or the state or
local agency that has been designated to enforce Title I of the ADA).
However, due to lack of resources, the EEOC directly files lawsuits in
behalf of claimants in a very small percentage of cases that come before
Third, while Garrett has eliminated the availability of monetary
damages as a remedy for discrimination, the Supreme Court noted that
injunctive relief is still available to individuals who file federal
lawsuits against states under Title I. This could include Court orders
directing employers to cease discriminatory actions (including
reinstatement of employment) and possibly back pay (i.e. reimbursement
of salary lost due to discrimination) under certain circumstances.
Finally, consumer and family advocates should continue their efforts
to promote employment opportunities for persons with mental illnesses in
state governments, as well as other segments of the employment
community. In recent years, a number of states have engaged in
affirmative steps to provide meaningful employment opportunities for
consumers. For example, the Ohio state mental health agency has called
for a "five-fold increase in consumer employment in the next five
years." NAMI believes that all state mental health agencies should set
similar employment targets. And, employment opportunities should be
created in other agencies within state governments as well.
See NAMI E-News Vol. 01-27, "NAMI Calls on State Agencies to Employ
Consumers" (October 3, 2000) for more information on strategies to
promote employment opportunities for persons with mental illnesses.
Potential Threats to Title II of the ADA
There are concerns that the Supreme Court's reasoning in Garrett
could be applied in the future to cases filed under Title II of the ADA.
Title II prohibits discrimination in the provision of (non-employment)
services by state and local governments. This section of the ADA is very
important to people with mental illnesses because it intended to remedy
discriminatory policies or practices by state or local governments.
The Supreme Court has issued several important decisions in the past
few years under this section of the ADA. For example, in L.C. v.
Olmstead, 119 S.Ct 2176 (1999), the Supreme Court held that Title II
requires states to provide services to institutionalized individuals
with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their
needs. This decision applies not only to individuals who are currently
institutionalized but very possibly to individuals who are at risk of
institutionalization if they don't receive appropriate treatment and
services. And, in Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey, 118
S. Ct 1952 (1998), the Supreme Court held that the non-discrimination
requirements of Title II apply to inmates with disabilities in local and
state jails and prisons.
There are several Eleventh Amendment challenges to Title II pending
in lower federal Courts that could eventually reach the Supreme Court.
Were the Supreme Court to apply its rationale in Garrett to Title II,
this could spell the demise of important cases like Olmstead and Yeskey.
NAMI is working in coalition with other advocacy organizations for
persons with disabilities to minimize the negative short and long-term
impacts of the Garrett decision. NAMI will keep readers apprised of