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Supreme Court: Prisoners' ADA Right to Sue for Damages Trumps State's Sovereign Immunity

by John E. Dannenberg

The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the private cause of action created by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) (42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq.), which permits disabled state prisoners to sue prison officials for damages resulting from violation of prisoners' Constitutional rights, takes precedence over (validly abrogates) the state's defense of sovereign immunity, at least as to actual violations of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Tony Goodman, a paraplegic Georgia state prisoner, sued state defendants in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title II of the ADA for violation of his Eighth Amendment rights as to cruel and unusual punishment. He alleged, inter alia, that he was confined 23 hours/day in a cell so narrow that he could not turn his wheelchair. The district court dismissed the claims as vague and granted summary judgment on his Title II money claims as barred by Georgia's Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. The United States of America intervened in support of the supremacy of its ADA statute. The Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the district court's holding that Goodman had not adduced sufficient facts to support some of his claims, but affirmed Georgia's sovereign immunity defense. The U.S. Supreme Court then granted certiorari solely to decide if Title II validly abrogated state sovereign immunity.

The Court previously held that the ADA applies to state prisons. See: Pennsylvania Dept. Of Corrections v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206 (1998). Moreover, 42 U.S.C. § 12101(b) (4) expressly announced that states shall not be immune under the Eleventh amendment ... for an action in [a] Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction for a violation of this chapter." Board of Trustees of Univ. Of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001). Then, following Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947), [Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Eighth Amendment's guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment], the Court considered Goodman's Eighth Amendment claims as applied here.

The Court observed that although Goodman's claims were formulated only under the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment), they also appeared to sound, at least in part, in § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment [no deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process of law]. It is established that state conduct that actually violates the Fourteenth Amendment trumps the Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity of the states. Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004) and Ex Parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339 (1880) [confirming Fourteenth Amendment's § 5 enforcement powers]. Because Goodman had not expressly alleged Fourteenth Amendment violations, only Eighth Amendment ones, the Court held that he should be allowed to amend his complaint, if possible.

Twelve states had urged the Court to rule that prisoners' ADA damage suits should always be barred. The instant ruling does not address all ADA damage suits, just those that actually violate the Fourteenth Amendment." The Court accordingly reversed unanimously the lower court's sovereign immunity approval (at 120 Fed. Appx. 785) and remanded to the district court to determine (1) those aspects of Georgia's alleged misconduct that violated Title II; (2) if that misconduct also violated the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) if it violated Title II but not the Fourteenth Amendment, whether Georgia should yet be barred from asserting its sovereign immunity.
This left the latter question open for future Supreme Court review. Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, in their concurring opinion, added that the whole constellation of rights applicable in the prison context," e.g., religious rights, freedom from censorship, non-interference with judicial process, procedural due process (including lawyers, legal materials, reading materials, and access to law libraries), might also fall under the umbrella of protection if caused by a Title II violation. See: United States v. Georgia, 126 S. Ct. 877 (2006).

Prison Legal News filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Goodman urging the supreme court to find that prisoners have a right to sue for money damages under the ADA. The brief is on PLN's website at

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Related legal case

United States v. Georgia