Supreme Court Rules ... State Prisons May Be Financially Liable to Inmates for ADA Title II Violations

Article excerpt

In a decision that should grab the attention of correctional officials nationwide, the Supreme Court, in the case of United States v. Georgia, (1) has unanimously ruled that state prisoners whose rights have been violated under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (2) may sue for monetary damages in at least instances where the ADA violation also amounts to a violation of a prisoner's constitutional rights. This article will first review the history of the ADA, both in general and as it applies in the correctional setting, and then will discuss the facts alleged (3) in this case, the basis for the court's decision and the possibility of state correctional agencies being held liable for damages for ADA violations in the future.

The Americans With Disabilities Act

ADA, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, is comprehensive legislation designed to eliminate barriers that in the past have kept persons with disabilities from full participation in our nation's society and economy. To accomplish this goal, ADA requires that employers (both public and private) not discriminate based on a person's disability, and that governmental programs and offices, businesses, and public accommodations and transportation all be accessible to persons with disabilities.

Title I of ADA governs employment practices, and Title II specifically addresses the duty of "public entities" to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities. In both Title I and Title II, Congress inserted provisions that purport to override states' "sovereign immunity" against being sued for damages. However (for reasons which are beyond the scope of this article), in the case of Board of Trustees of U. of Alabama v. Garrett, (4) the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, held that Congress had exceeded its constitutional power in making states subject to liability in monetary damages for Title I employment violations. The Garrett decision, though, specifically left open the question of whether Congress had properly made states subject to damages for Title II violations (denying access to correctional facilities and programs).

ADA and Corrections

In the case of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey, (5) the Supreme Court unanimously ruled, in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, that as "public entities," state prisons are subject to the provisions of ADA Title II. Correctional agencies and facilities must therefore comply comprehensively with ADA requirements--with respect to employment practices, to building architecture and construction, and to program eligibility and accessibility.

Some Title II violations in the correctional setting are also violations of the U.S. Constitution--e.g., conditions and practices that unnecessarily subject inmates with disabilities to injury or pain, or threaten their health, hygiene or safety. Where prison officials are deliberately indifferent to such conditions, they may be held in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment (as well as ADA Title II) and may be personally liable for damages under the Federal Civil Rights Act (FCRA), 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983. Other less serious Title II infractions, such as construction code violations that do not injure or threaten disabled inmates' health or safety, clearly do not constitute separate constitutional violations.

Until U.S. v. Georgia, it was clear that correctional agencies can be sued for injunctive relief for violations of either Title I or Title II, but they cannot be sued for damages for Title I employment violations. However, there was considerable doubt as to whether they may be sued for damages for Title II (facility and program) violations. U.S. v. Georgia has now answered that question in a way that opens the door to significant liability for damages where correctional facilities and programs are found in violation of ADA Title II. …