U.S. Supreme Court will decide if disabled can sue state agencies

by Erin Ghere

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday about whether people with disabilities can sue public colleges or other state agencies under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The opposing participants in the argument — the University of Alabama-Birmingham and a group of Florida public university employees who sued their institutions — are asking the court to decide whether Congress overstepped its constitutional bounds by passing a law making states liable under the federal act.
The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Congress had not exceeded its limits last year. The university, along with the state of Alabama, appealed the decision.
The university and state’s lawyer, Jeffrey Sutton, said the U.S. Constitution’s 11th Amendment — which gives states substantial protection from federal actions — protects Alabama from liability.
The court could agree. In a similar case dealing with the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, the court ruled 5-4 in January that Congress had exceeded its power.
But those discriminated against feel the state should be liable.
Michael Gottesman, lawyer for the Florida employees, said Congress has a right to place liability in the hands of the state because states’ actions are widespread enough to exemplify unconstitutional behavior.
He said many studies have found that employers stereotype and are uncomfortable around people with disabilities.
Gottesman cited one example of a state university which refused to hire a woman who was handicapped by arthritis because officials didn’t want students to have to look at her.
The justices asked various questions of both sides, including what proof there was that state officials violated the Constitution.
The court will render its decision near the end of its term next spring.

— The Chronicle of Higher Education contributed to this report.

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