On February 21, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court decided University of Alabama v. Garrett, holding that Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as applied to state employers, is unconstitutional. That same day, JAN started getting questions about the impact of the decision. Though JAN cannot provide an in-depth analysis of the case, we compiled a summary of what the decision means, what it does not mean, and what enforcement options are left for people with disabilities who work for state employers. Keep in mind that JAN is not a legal service so we are not able to provide legal advice. If you need a legal interpretation of Garrett, you should contact a lawyer or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This edition of Consultants' Corner illustrates the first issue addressing court activities.
What Garrett means:
- Private citizens cannot sue their state employers under Title I of the ADA in federal court unless the state has consented to such suits. Consent to suit is usually either a provision of a state's constitution, part of a state statute, or a condition of receipt of federal money. As a starting point for information on your state's position, contact your state fair employment practice agency (FEPA), which enforces state and local laws that are similar to the federal nondiscrimination laws.
- In Garrett, the Supreme Court only addressed the issue of whether Congress went too far when it "abrogated state immunity" under Title I, as applied to state employers. "Abrogation of state immunity" means that Congress, through legislation, "overrode" the Eleventh Amendment, which prohibits private citizens from suing the state in federal court. See Alden v. Maine.
- In a previous case, the Supreme Court held that a state cannot be sued in state court to enforce federal law, unless the state has consented to such suits.
What Garret does not mean:
- Garrett does not mean that the ADA no longer applies to states. It only means that private citizens cannot sue their state employers for violating the ADA. States are still obligated to comply with the ADA.
- Garrett does not mean that city and county employees cannot sue their employers in federal court. The Supreme Court refused to expand the application of the Eleventh Amendment beyond states.
- Title II of the ADA, dealing with "services, programs, or activities" of states was not an issue before the Court so the Court did not decide whether Title II itself can be used in claims of employment discrimination under the ADA.
What enforcement options are left for people with disabilities who work for state employers:
- State employees with disabilities can still file complaints with the EEOC.
- The Eleventh Amendment does not prohibit the federal government from suing a state in federal court so the United States can sue state employers for money damages in federal court to enforce the ADA.
- State employees with disabilities can sue "state officials" who they feel are violating the law, but only to get them to stop violating the law, not for money damages.
- State employees with disabilities can still pursue enforcement of state laws.