University of Alabama Board of Trustees v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356; 121 S. Ct. 955; 148 L. Ed. 2d 866 (2001)

University of Alabama Board of Trustees v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356; 121 S. Ct. 955; 148 L. Ed. 2d 866 (2001)

Facts—Two Alabama state employees, a nurse and a security officer, sued the state under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, alleging that they had been discriminated against because of physical disabilities, cancer in one case, and asthma and sleep apnea, in the other. The U.S. District Court ruled that the Eleventh Amendment barred such suits, but the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.


(a) May individuals sue states under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

(b) Are such suits barred by the Eleventh Amendment?


(a) No;

(b) Yes.

ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (5–4). Although the specific terms of the Eleventh Amendment do not limit suits by citizens from within the states, the amendment has been understood to stand for the principle that “nonconsenting States may not be sued by private individuals in federal courts.” Congress may not abrogate this limitation under its Article I powers, although it might under the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted after the Eleventh Amendment. Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment grants Congress power to enforce its provisions, but legislation that moves beyond the specific guarantees of Section 1 of the amendment “must exhibit ‘congruence and proportionality,’ between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end.” Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U.S. 432 (1985), dealing with state treatment of the mentally retarded, judged state legislation of the disabled by a standard of rationality. Congressional investigation leading to the Americans with Disabilities Act did not demonstrate widespread state discrimination against the disabled. Allowing individuals to sue the states without their consent would thus violate the principles of “congruence and proportionality” that should mark federal enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment under Section 5.

J. Kennedy’s concurrence stressed that this case did not preclude suits brought against states by the national government but only suits brought by private individuals. J. Breyer’s dissent focused on the evidence that Congress had mustered in demonstrating state denials of equal protection to the disabled and argued that the standard to which the majority was holding the states was too high for an elected body. He further observed that the rules the Court had established to protect the states “run counter to the very object of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

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