Supreme Court rules that states can be sued for access to courts

Tennessee Protection & Advocacy, Inc.

Contact: Martha M. Lafferty
615.298.1080 x 28

May 17, 2004 - Nashville, Tennessee. Tennessee Protection & Advocacy, Inc. today announced that the United States Supreme Court has reached a decision in Tennessee v. Lane, Docket No. 02-1667, ruling that states are subject to lawsuits filed by private individuals for money damages under Title II of the ADA in cases involving access to the courts.  The sole question raised in this case was whether Congress acted to validly repeal the sovereign immunity of the states when passing Title II of the ADA.  With today’s ruling, the Supreme Court has answered that question in the affirmative for individuals with disabilities who are seeking access to the courts.

“We anticipate that this ruling will have a profound effect on the ability of people with disabilities to force state governments to comply with the requirements of the ADA, “ said Martha M. Lafferty, attorney for Tennessee Protection & Advocacy.  “The availability of money damages not only provides greater motivation for individuals who have been injured to file legal actions to enforce the ADA but also provides private attorneys with a heightened incentive to provide representation in such cases.  It seems likely that states will immediately begin making the changes needed to come into compliance with the requirements of Title II of the ADA due to the heightened probability of lawsuits in which they will be subject to monetary damages.”

In 1998, Plaintiffs George Lane and Beverly Jones filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Tennessee and 25 Tennessee counties were in violation of Title II of the ADA by failing to insure that courtrooms are accessible to individuals with disabilities.  Since that time four other individuals with disabilities, Ann Marie Zappola, Ralph Ramsey, Dennis Cantrell, and A. Russell Larson, have joined Mr. Lane and Ms. Jones as named plaintiffs. 

In their lawsuit, the Plaintiffs asked for a declaration that the state and counties were in violation of the ADA, as well as a requirement that defendants remedy these violations by modifying their courthouses so that they are accessible, and monetary damages.  In addition, the plaintiffs hope that the Federal District Court will grant their petition to certify this lawsuit as a class action and allow them to act as representatives for other Tennesseans with disabilities that affect their ability to walk and/or climb stairs. 

After Lane v. Tennessee was filed, Tennessee’s Attorney General responded by filing a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the state was protected by the Eleventh Amendment’s guarantee of sovereign immunity from a lawsuit brought by individuals for money damages.  The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee denied the state’s motion to dismiss.  That decision was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In affirming that decision, the Sixth Circuit relied on its prior holding in Popovich v. Cuyahoga County that Congress’s authority to enact Title II came from the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.   

Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court effectively affirms the Sixth Circuit and District Court’s denial of the State of Tennessee’s motion to dismiss and means that the plaintiffs’ case against the state will continue to proceed toward trial. Because the trial against the counties has not yet occurred, Plaintiffs plan to file a Motion asking that the Court reconsolidate their claims against the state with their claims against twenty-five individual Tennessee counties.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorney William J. Brown, a solo practitioner in Cleveland, Tennessee and attorneys Martha M. Lafferty and Gary D. Housepian of Tennessee Protection & Advocacy, Inc.  Mr. Brown forcefully presented plaintiffs’ argument that states should be liable for damages under Title II of the ADA when he argued before the Supreme Court for the first time on January 13 of this year. 

Tennessee Protection and Advocacy, Inc. is a federally funded non-profit agency charged with protecting the legal rights of people with disabilities in Tennessee.  For more information regarding the Lane case visit People with disabilities seeking free legal advocacy services can contact Tennessee Protection & Advocacy, Inc. at 800-342-1660 (TTY 888.852.2852) or via e-mail to