WASHINGTON – A divided federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the state cannot be sued by a citizen for damages stemming from violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Congress had overstepped its bounds when it tried to exempt the ADA from the 11th amendment, which says states cannot be sued for damages in federal court.
Disability advocacy groups said they are “very concerned” that this ruling, which follows similar rulings in other circuit courts, will strip away the scope of the ADA.
“The end result of today is, `States, you don’t have to comply,'” said Neal Walters, an attorney in the case. “The unfortunate drawback is it’s another stake in the coffin of the national consensus that individual states can decide if protecting the rights of the disabled are important.”
Walters represented Dwayne E. Wessel, a state inmate who said prison programs that reduced inmates’ sentences in exchange for labor discriminated against him because he had back pain. Under the ADA, government programs must be made available to those with disabilities.
Wessel was deemed disabled by the Maryland Division of Corrections, which prevented him from participating in boot camp or handling yard work that would earn credit toward early release. He was placed on non-work status at the Jessup Pre-Release Unit and could not try for early release credit, said Neal Walters, Wessel’s attorney.
Congress can exempt laws from the 11th amendment if they provide ongoing evidence that a state is perpetually ignoring the rights of its citizens, but the court ruled Congress had not met that standard.
“They (Congress) were clearly trying to change the status of the disabled to change their constitutional rights,” said David Kennedy, assistant attorney general and the state’s defense attorney. “This means the prison system doesn’t have to pay money to someone who claims they have a disability.”
But Walters said the decision perpetuates states’ abilities to dodge federal law.
Kennedy said a private party can still go to court and seek an injunction under ADA. But Walters said there is no indication that a state would comply with such an injunction if the court ordered it.
“With an injunction, all the state has to say is, `We won’t do it anymore.’ It was obviously not the result we wanted,” Walters said.
The federal appeals courts are divided on the application of the 11th Amendment to the ADA, but advocates for the disabled said decisions like the 4th Circuit’s have them worried.
Brewster Thackeray, spokesman for the National Organization on Disability, said he feels the 1990 act’s scope is being challenged.
“People with disabilities fought for years to pass this to protect all American citizens,” he said. “The real concern is using states’ rights over federal law.”
Thackeray said the act was passed to protect people like Wessel — someone who was denied something available to others without disability.
“This is not fair, just like as if he were denied an opportunity based on race, gender or ethnicity,” he said.
Kennedy said the Supreme Court would likely be called upon to decide this “contentious issue” of states’ rights versus federal provisions since the appeals courts have split on the issue.
Even the 4th Circuit split, 2-1. In his dissent, Judge Robert B. King said Congress successfully abrogated the 11th Amendment in the ADA.
“It’s really a mixed bag of decisions,” Kennedy said. “Federal courts are very reluctant to order the state to pay money, but they will order the state to comply with federal law.”
Walters said he would pursue the case, hopefully bringing it to the Supreme Court.
Thackeray said he hopes the current administration would be supportive of disabled citizens if the high court gets involved.
“We feel there’s support but at the same time, we feel the people who have been appointed, like the judges who will decide these cases, need to consider that people with disabilities get fair treatment,” Thackeray said.