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ADA Policy Brief Series #7: The Impact of the Supreme Court's ADA Decisions

Tuesday, February 25, 2003
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February 25, 2003


This paper explores the impact the Supreme Court’s decisions have had on persons with disabilities. It reviews published and unpublished court decisions, as well as anecdotal evidence, and demonstrates that the Court’s restrictive reading of the ADA has undermined Congress’ goal of eradicating discrimination on the basis of disability. This paper discusses representative examples-particularly at the federal appellate level-of how the Supreme Court’s decisions have impeded the rights of people with disabilities.

Part II of this paper discusses the Supreme Court’s “definition cases”-Sutton v. United Airlines,3 Murphy v. United Parcel Service,4 Albertson’s v. Kirkingburg,5 and Toyota v. Williams6-in which the Supreme Court narrowly interpreted the ADA’s definition of disability. This Part analyzes how these definition cases have been interpreted by the lower courts and concludes that hundreds of ADA cases are being dismissed on the question of whether the plaintiff is covered by the statute, rather than whether the plaintiff was discriminated against because of his or her disability. This Part also documents attorneys’ resulting reluctance to litigate ADA employment cases.

Part III discusses the Supreme Court’s decision in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett,7 which held that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to abrogate the states’ Eleventh Amendment immunity to suits brought under the ADA’s employment provisions. This Part shows how Garrett has limited the ability of ADA plaintiffs to sue states for discrimination, under both Titles I and II of the ADA.

Part IV discusses Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep’t of Health and Human Resources,8 which eliminated the “catalyst theory” as a grounds for recovering attorneys’ fees. Under the catalyst theory, an individual who had brought about voluntary change in the defendant’s conduct by filing a lawsuit was deemed to be a prevailing party and thus entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees. This Part demonstrates how elimination of the catalyst theory has restricted access to the courts for people with disabilities, because attorneys are financially unable to pursue many meritorious cases of discrimination.

Part V discusses Barnes v. Gorman,9 which held that punitive damages are not available under either Title II of the ADA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Part VI discusses Chevron v. Echazabal,10 which held that the EEOC regulation allowing employers to refuse to hire applicants because their performance on the job would endanger their health due to a disability is permissible under the ADA, and U.S. Airways v. Barnett,11 which held that when seeking a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, an employee must establish that the accommodation is “reasonable on its face.” These final sections demonstrate how the Court’s expansion of defenses available to employers and further limitation of the remedies available to persons with disabilities have created additional impediments to redressing discrimination on the basis of disability.

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