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Fifth Circuit Rules on Prisoner’s ADA Claim; Issues Superseding Opinion

On October 14, 2010, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12132, does not abrogate a state’s sovereign immunity when the misconduct complained of does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. In a May 2011 superseding opinion following rehearing, however, the appellate court did not reach that question, instead finding the plaintiff had failed to adequately plead an ADA claim.

John Hale, a Mississippi state prisoner, filed a pro se federal civil rights action against prison officials under the ADA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131-12165, alleging that he was prevented from using community work centers, accessing satellite and regional prison facilities, working in the kitchen or attending school because he suffered from Hepatitis C, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic depression, intermittent explosive disorder and antisocial personality disorder. The district court dismissed his lawsuit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) after finding the defendants were entitled to state sovereign immunity. Hale appealed.

The Fifth Circuit appointed counsel to brief the issue of “whether Title II of the ADA validly abrogates Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity for claims that violate Title II but are not actual violations of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Court of Appeals held that Congress has the right to abrogate state sovereign immunity, but only if it acts “pursuant to a valid grant of constitutional authority.” The ADA “validly abrogates sovereign immunity insofar as it ‘creates a private cause of action for damages against the States for conduct that actually violates the Fourteenth Amendment.’” In this case, the parties agreed that “none of the defendants’ alleged misconduct violates the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The Fifth Circuit noted that the origin of Congress’s power to abrogate state sovereign immunity in the ADA was § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, “Congress’s § 5 powers do not extend to creating causes of action for ADA violations that are not ‘congruent and proportional’ to violations of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Although legislation “which deters or remedies constitutional violations can fall within the sweep of Congress’s enforcement power even if in the process it prohibits conduct which is not itself unconstitutional,” its power under § 5 “is not unlimited.”

Hale’s claim implicated Title II’s intent of enforcing the prohibition on irrational disability discrimination in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. “Under that clause, disabled individuals are not a suspect or quasi-suspect classification commanding heightened review of laws discriminating against them.” Therefore, such discrimination is constitutionally permissible if “there is a rational relationship between the disparity of treatment and some legitimate government purpose.”

In Hale’s case there were rational relationships with legitimate purposes, such as protecting the health of a disabled prisoner, avoiding an “undue burden” or preventing a fundamental alteration in a program. Therefore, the exercise of Congress’s authority in this case was not congruent and proportional, and state sovereignty was not abrogated by Title II for this type of claim. The judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Hale v. King, 624 F.3d 178 (5th Cir. 2010).

The U.S. government moved for rehearing as an intervenor, which was granted by the Court of Appeals. On May 26, 2011 the Fifth Circuit issued a superseding opinion that took a different approach to the case, and withdrew its prior decision.

The appellate court first addressed whether Hale had sufficiently pleaded an ADA claim, and held he had not. While Hale may have had an “impairment,” that did not necessarily mean he had a disability as that term is defined by the ADA. “It is well established that ‘[m]erely having an impairment ... does not make one disabled for purposes of the ADA,’” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Hale failed to allege facts from which we can reasonably infer that Hale’s medical conditions substantially limited a major life activity.”

As Hale had failed to state a violation of Title II of the ADA, the Fifth Circuit vacated “the portions of the district court’s decision below that address whether Hale’s allegations established violations of the Fourteenth Amendment and whether Title II validly abrogates state sovereign immunity....”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court and remanded the case to allow Hale an opportunity to amend his complaint to adequately plead an ADA claim. See: Hale v. King, 642 F.3d 492 (5th Cir. 2011).

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Hale v. King

Hale v. King