Decisions of the Supreme Court's 2003 Term: State Sovereign Immunity, Disparate Impact and Reverse Age Discrimination

Article excerpt

Throughout the year, CCH asks recognized experts in the field of labor and employment law to discuss decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in the labor and employment arena. CCH welcomes the opportunity to share their observations with readers of the Labor Law Journal.


In May, the Supreme Court ruled that "as it applies to the class of cases implicating the fundamental right of access to the courts," Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),1 which prohibits discrimination against the disabled by public entities in the provision of public services, is a valid exercise of Congress' enforcement power under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.2 In so holding, the Court allowed two paraplegics to sue the State of Tennessee for money damages for allegedly denying them access to the state court system because of their disabilities.


The decision is one in a line of cases where the Court has considered the Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity argument in the context of a number of federal laws, most recently those prohibiting discrimination. In Kimel u Florida Board of Regents,3 and Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett,4 the Court held that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)5 and Title I (employment provisions) of the ADA,'' respectively, were not valid abrogations of the states' sovereign immunity from suits by private individuals for money damages. In Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs,1 however, the Court held that the Family and Medical Leave Act's provision of 12 weeks of leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition8 was a valid exercise of Congress' power to remedy sex discrimination under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Hibbs, Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O'Connor "jumped ship" to join Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer and Souter to comprise the majority. In Lane, Justice O'Connor joined Justices Stevens (who wrote the opinion), Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Justices Rehnquist, Thomas, Scalia and Kennedy dissented.

Liability for money damages. At the outset, it is important to be clear that what we are talking about in these sovereign immunity eases is the states' immunity from money damages liability, law Professor Henry Drummonds stressed. "We are not talking about the power of Congress to enact legislation proscribing discrimination, or broadly defining discrimination to reach acts not proscribed by the Constitution itself, or the power to make such legislation applicable to state and local governments, although you sometimes see commentary that confuses this," he explained.

Even where the Supreme Court has upheld state claims of sovereign immunity-in Garrett, for example-the statutes remain in theory substantively binding on the states and fully enforceable in actions for prospective or injunctive relief, Drummonds emphasized.

Court's analysis

Two paraplegics who use wheelchairs for mobility-Lane, the subject of criminal charges, and Jones, a court stenographer-sued the state alleging that they had been denied access to the state court system because of their disabilities. The district court denied the state's motion to dismiss. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, explaining that the claims were not barred because they were based on due process principles.9

Congruence and proportionality. Applying its now familiar "congruence and proportionality test," the Court noted that in addition to remedying irrational disability discrimination, Title TI of the ADA also seeks to enforce other basic constitutional guarantees, such as the right of access to the courts that is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and infringements of which are subject to "more searching judicial review."

Citing Justice Broyer's dissenting opinion in Garrett, cataloging hundreds of instances of unequal treatment of persons with disabilities by the states and their political subdivisions, the Court pointed out that the record of constitutional violations in Lane "far exceeded" the record in Hibbs. …