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Legal E-Bulletin - January 2006

Supreme Court Allows Prisoner to Sue State for Damages under the ADA

January 11, 2006

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a prisoner can sue the state of Georgia for money damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for conduct that may have also violated his constitutional rights.

Tony Goodman, a prisoner with paraplegia, had made several allegations about his incarceration ranging from frivolous to serious. Some of the more serious allegations included that he was kept in a inaccessible 12 by 3 foot prison cell where he could not turn his wheelchair around. He could not use the toilet or shower without assistance due to the lack of accessible facilities and was often denied assistance when asked. As a result, he often injured himself when attempting to transfer from his wheelchair to his inaccessible shower or toilet on his own. He had also been forced to sit in his own bodily waste while prison officials refused to help him clean up and was denied physical therapy and medical treatment. He was also denied access to most prison programs and services because of his disability.

Title II of the ADA prohibits disability discrimination by public entities such as the state of Georgia. It prohibits a public entity from excluding a person from its programs and services on the basis of disability.1 The Supreme Court had previously decided that state prisons were bound by these prohibitions.2 Tony Goodman’s allegations against the prison, if true, would amount to violations of the ADA.

The State of Georgia did not dispute that the alleged conduct, if true, would violate the ADA. Instead, Georgia argued that it could not be sued for money damages under the ADA because of its sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.3 - See May 2004 Legal E-Bulletin. Normally, private citizens cannot sue a state without its consent in federal court. Congress can override a state’s immunity as long as it legislates to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment4 within a prescribed framework set out by a series of prior Supreme Court decisions. Two lower courts agreed with this position and threw out the ADA claims.

Justice Scalia, in writing for a unanimous court, noted that Tony Goodman’s claims were different from the other plaintiffs in prior Supreme Court cases. Previous arguments on sovereign immunity had hinged on whether Congress had gone too far with the ADA in trying to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. The previous cases addressed state conduct that may have violated the ADA without violating the Fourteenth Amendment which necessitated a complicated analysis. Goodman, in this case, may have valid constitutional claims for cruel and unusual punishment against the prison for its alleged mistreatment. Scalia wrote that Congress has the power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment by creating private remedies for actual constitutional violations.5 Therefore, states can not assert their immunity when there is an actual constitutional violation.

Because Goodman had no lawyer and filed suit representing himself, his allegations varied from the frivolous to the unconstitutional. The Supreme Court directed the lower courts to analyze his complaint on a claim-by-claim basis to determine which claim violated the ADA and which claim also violated the Fourteenth Amendment. For claims that violated the ADA but did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, the lower courts would have to go through the complicated framework used in previous cases to decide if Georgia could assert its sovereign immunity.

Justice Stevens, in a concurring opinion, warned the lower court not to just focus on the cruel and unusual punishment aspect of Goodman claims in determining whether there have been constitutional violations. He reminded that prisoners with disabilities may face abridgment of religious liberties, undue censorship, interference with judicial access, and procedural due process violations due to a prison’s treatment of their disability. These are some of the many constitutional rights that Congress had in mind when enacting the ADA.

1. 42 U.S.C. § 12132: No qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity , or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.

2. Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206 (1998).

3. The Eleventh Amendment provides:
" The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state."

4. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment provides:
" ...No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Section 5 provides:
" ...Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article"

5. “the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.” P 6 of the slip opinion 04-1203.

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This material is provided by the DBTAC National Network of ADA Centers. The DBTAC’s are funded by the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation and Research (NIDRR), the US Department of Education (Grant # H133A060085), to provide technical assistance, training, and materials on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The information, materials, and technical assistance provided are intended solely as information guidance and are neither a determination of your legal rights or responsibilities under the Act, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA.

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