Legal E-Bulletin

Garrett Case Decided:  The Supreme Court Rules on 
the Applicability of the Americans with Disabilities Act to States

Table of Contents

Justices Limit Disability Law 
Associated Press
By Laurie Asseo

Civil Rights Advocates Decry Supreme Court Decision
By The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc.  DREDF

Links to more Articles

Note:  Expect an in-depth analysis of the implications of the Garrett decision to be sent by E-bulletin later this week.

Justices Limit Disability Law

By Laurie Asseo
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, February 21, 2001; 10:45 AM


The Supreme Court limited the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ruling Wednesday that state workers cannot file employment-discrimination lawsuits against their employers under the federal disability-rights law.

The 5-4 ruling, a further cutback of the federal government's power over the states, said Congress exceeded its authority when it let state workers file such claims under the 1990 law.

The federal law does not trump states' 11th Amendment immunity against being sued in federal courts, the justices said, "We decide here whether employees of the state of Alabama may recover money damages by reason of the state's failure to comply with the (employment discrimination) provisions of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We hold that such suits are barred by the 11th Amendment," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.  The ruling in an Alabama case added to the court's series of decisions that have increasingly tipped the federal-state balance of power toward the states.

Those decisions have all featured the same 5-4 split among the justices, and that lineup was repeated in Wednesday's decision.

Joining Rehnquist were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Writing for the four, Breyer said, "The court ... improperly invades a power that the Constitution assigns to Congress."

In January 2000, the justices barred state workers from suing their employers in federal court under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  That ruling said the law could not override states' immunity against being sued in federal court.

The ADA is perhaps best known for requiring wheelchair ramps in buildings across the country.

The law bans job discrimination against the disabled, requiring employers to offer reasonable accommodations to disabled people who are otherwise qualified to perform a job. It also bans discrimination in the provision of government programs and services.

The law was signed by former President Bush, who filed a court brief supporting two Alabama state employees who sued the state. Bush said the ADA let disabled people "pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom."

Wednesday's ruling reversed a federal appeals court decision that let Patricia Garrett and Milton Ash sue over alleged bias in their state jobs.

Garrett had been a University of Alabama nurse for 17 years when she took a four-month leave to undergo surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for breast cancer. When she returned, she said she was ordered to take a lower-paying job or quit.

Her lawsuit said her supervisor made negative comments about her illness. She took the lower-paying job and later retired.

Ash, a security guard for the Alabama Department of Youth Services, said his severe asthma was aggravated by the agency's refusal to enforce its no-smoking policy or repair exhaust problems on a vehicle he had to drive.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the two could sue under the ADA, saying the law canceled the states' constitutional immunity from being sued in federal court against their will.

The Supreme Court said Wednesday the appeals court was wrong.

Rehnquist said examples offered in the case of discrimination by states "fall far short of even suggesting the pattern of unconstitutional discrimination" to justify legislation based on the Constitution's 14th Amendment equal-protection guarantee.

"In order to authorize private individuals to recover money damages against the states, there must be a pattern of discrimination by the states ...and the remedy imposed by Congress must be congruent and proportional to the targeted violation. Those requirements are not met here," the chief justice said.

In contrast, Rehnquist wrote, Congress found a "marked pattern" of racial discrimination by states when it enacted the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Breyer's dissent said Congress had found about 300 examples of discrimination by state governments. "Congress expressly found substantial unjustified discrimination against persons with disabilities," he said.

The case is University of Alabama v. Garrett, 99-1240.

© 2001 The Associated Press
Visit the following to read the the whole case.



February 21, 2001


The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc. (DREDF), the country's leading disability civil rights organization, expressed dismay at today's Supreme Court decision limiting the enforcement of Title I of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. By the narrowest of margins, 5-4, the Court held in Garrett that state employees are not protected if their employers discriminate against them because of disability. The case involved two state employees with disabilities in Alabama - Patricia Garrett, a registered nurse with breast cancer, and Milton Ash, a security officer with asthma and sleep apnea, both of whom suffered discrimination in their jobs because of their disabilities.

The conservative majority found that states cannot be required "to make special accommodations for the disabled, so long as their actions toward such individuals are rational" and that the ADA's legislative record fails to show that Congress identified a history and pattern of irrational employment discrimination by the States against the disabled."

In his dissenting opinion in Garrett, Justice Breyer said, "The legislative record bears out Congress' finding that the adverse treatment of personal with disabilities was often arbitrary or invidious." "It is difficult to see how the Court can find the legislative record here inadequate.  The record indicates that state governments subjected those with disabilities to seriously adverse, disparate treatment."

Justice Breyer's dissent cited testimony from Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney of DREDF, a leading proponent of the ADA in Congress.  Mayerson, who teaches at Boalt Hall, was co-author of the brief representing Garrett and Ash, and is the author of a comprehensive three volume legislative history of the ADA. Mayerson says that "the majority decision sets a new low in equal protection law. A state can exclude persons with disabilities based on 'negative attitudes' and 'fear' and still not violate the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the law. The majority decision ignores not only the voluminous legislative history on the historic discrimination by states against people with disabilities, but the hundreds of pages of documentation submitted to the court by a wide range of disability groups, historians and social science experts.

Despite this blow, it is imperative that states and the public know that this decision affects only the ability of people with disabilities to sue state employers in federal court for employment discrimination. The ADA still prescribes standards for non-discrimination applicable to states' employment practices. Those standards can be enforced by the United States in actions for money damages, as well as by private individuals in actions for injunctive relief.  In addition, state laws protecting the rights of persons with disabilities in employment and other aspects of life are in full force and effect."

The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Michael Gottesman, Larry Gold and the Alabama law firm of Gordon, Silberman, Wiggins & Childs also represented plaintiffs Garrett and Ash.


More Articles

Washington Post:

New York Times (free registration required):

ABC News:


Legal E-mail bulletin distribution list of the Southwest ADA Center. The bulletin is distributed monthly to provide subscribers with an update on the Americans with Disabilities Act events, trainings, resources, agency rulemaking and enforcement activities. We also want to use the bulletin as a vehicle to post information on any ADA-related events your organization or group are planning in your state or community. Please feel free to forward us any information about your event(s). They will be posted the following month. Questions and feedback may also be submitted in the same manner.  Project staff are also available at 800-949-4232 from 9:00a.m.–5:00p.m. Central Time to answer your ADA questions. All questions are answered confidentially.

The mission of the Southwest ADA Center is to promote proactive compliance with the ADA in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.  Based at ILRU (Independent Living Research Utilization), a program of TIRR in Houston, Texas, the DLRP is funded by NIDRR, an agency of the Department of Education, under grant #H133D60012, to provide information, materials, and technical assistance on the ADA. NIDRR is not an enforcement agency.

The information herein is intended solely as informal guidance and is neither a determination of your legal rights or responsibilities under the Act, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA.

To unsubscribe to the legal E-bulletin, or to subscribe to the general or HR E-bulletin, to ask a question or give a comment, please send an E-mail to  All questions are answered confidentially.