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Leslie Bonacum
Neil Allen

Supreme Court Ruling Protects States From Damages In Disability Discrimination Suits

Rules, Penalties Stay the Same for Private Employers

(RIVERWOODS, ILL., February 23, 2001) – A closely divided Supreme Court reined in the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act, holding that state employees cannot use the Act to collect damages for alleged disability discrimination by their state employers.

"While reinforcing states rights, the Court’s decision does not, however, protect employers in the private sector from potential for damages under the ADA," according to James Taylor, JD, an employment discrimination law analyst for CCH INCORPORATED (CCH), a leading provider of employment law and human resources information.

"The holding is important for several reasons with respect to the protection it extends to states," said Taylor, "but private employers in no way should interpret this to be a relaxation of the federal requirements with which they must comply."

Decision Continues Court’s Trend of Reinforcing States’ Rights

In the five-to-four decision, the Court continued its shift towards state autonomy from federal oversight by finding that Congress exceeded its powers when it tried to eliminate the states’ Eleventh Amendment immunity to federal court suits.

"The decision is significant for states in that it resolves a split in the federal circuits regarding state immunity to ADA suits," said Taylor. "It also is important because it clarifies and supplements the Kimel v Florida Bd of Regents decision, where the Court similarly held that Congress exceeded its powers in attempting to curtail state immunity to suits brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act."

Taylor also noted that the decision does not leave state employees without recourse.

"Every state protects state employees from disability discrimination through state laws that allow disability bias victims to recover monetary damages," said Taylor. "In fact, all states had in place disability discrimination protection laws before the ADA was enacted in 1990."

In the consolidated cases before the Court, Patricia Garrett, a registered nurse, was employed as a Director of Nursing for the University of Alabama in Birmingham Hospital. After Garrett was diagnosed with breast cancer and took substantial leave from work, she was told she would have to give up her Director position and was transferred to another, lower-paying position as a nurse manager.

Milton Ash, who suffered from chronic asthma, worked as a security officer for the Alabama Department of Youth Services. His doctor recommended he avoid carbon monoxide and cigarette smoke, and Ash requested that the Department modify his duties to minimize his exposure to these substances, but the Department did not accommodate his request. Both individuals sued under the ADA.

For Private Employers, the Rules Stay the Same

The Court held that since there is scant evidence of state government discrimination against persons with disabilities, persons with disabilities are not entitled to heightened protection under the Equal Protection Clause.

"This is a constitutional law case regarding states rights, not a case about private employers under the ADA," said Taylor. "It’s important to keep in mind that the Court’s holding on the availability of damages under the ADA applies only at the state level, to state employers," he said. "The holding does not signal any change to the requirements private employers must meet, or the damages they may be liable for if they violate the ADA."


CCH INCORPORATED, headquartered in Riverwoods, Ill., was founded in 1913 and has served four generations of business professionals and their clients. The company produces more than 700 electronic and print products for the tax, legal, securities, human resources, health care and small business markets. CCH is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wolters Kluwer U.S. The CCH web site can be accessed at The CCH Human Resources Group site can be accessed at

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