Before getting started on the blog of the week, I want to express my condolences to the Bush family on the passing of George H.W. Bush. He signed the Americans With Disabilities Act on June 26 of 1990. His son also has a powerful legacy in that regards as he signed the ADAAA. Simply put, for my ability to participate in the mainstream world as well as the specialty I have carved out for my legal career, I owe a great debt to both of them. In keeping with their legacy, I was incredibly moved that H.W.’s service dog was front and center in the papers. G-D speed H.W. May H.W. rest in peace.

Today’s case will revolutionize the consequences for what happens when a nonfederal governmental entity, and possibly a federal governmental entity as well, discriminates on the basis of disability. As I have mentioned before, at least once a month, I get a call about a court system somewhere around the country discriminating against a person with a disability before it. Previously, I have written about two different cases involving suing court systems successfully for disability discrimination. A discussion of those cases can be found here and here.

The case of the day is a case from the Sixth Circuit decided September 25, 2018, Bullington v. Bedford County, Tennessee, which can be found here. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; opinion for the court; concurring opinion; and takeaways/thoughts. The reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.

I

Facts

Bullington worked as a dispatcher at the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department for eight years. Sometime during that period, she developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma that was treated with chemotherapy. However, the chemotherapy caused neuropathy and scar tissue in her lungs so that she needed additional treatment. As a result of that diagnosis and treatment, she asserted the department treated her differently than the other employees. She filed suit alleging: violation of her constitutional rights under the 14th amendment to be free from discrimination and retaliation; violation of her constitutional rights because the County did not provide adequate supervision and training; violation of the Tennessee human rights act; and violation of the ADA. The defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings, which was granted by the District Court, and Bullington appealed.

II

Opinion for the Court

  1. Plaintiff admitted that she did not file a charge with the EEOC. Accordingly, she did not exhaust administrative remedies. Further, while she may have followed prior counsel’s advice on whether to file a charge with the EEOC, which was mistaken, that is not enough to allow for equitable tolling. Accordingly, the ADA claim has to be dismissed.
  2. Determining whether Congress precluded a remedy under §1983 turns on congressional intent.
  3. A distinction exists between §1983 claims premised on constitutional violations and those based on statutory violations in determining whether a §1983 claim is precluded.
  4. Where the contours of rights between the statutory claim and the constitutional protection diverge in significant ways, it is not likely that Congress intended to displace §1983 suits involving important constitutional rights.
  5. Both the Third and the Eighth Circuits have held that the ADA does preclude §1983 claims for violations of the ADA. Even so, that is not what is going on here. Rather, plaintiff alleges constitutional violations and not violations of the ADA itself. So, her claims are being brought under the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause and not under the ADA.
  6. Several Circuits have allowed constitutional claims to be brought under §1983 even where the plaintiff’s constitutional claims run parallel to claims brought under analogous statutes. Further, other courts have allowed plaintiffs to pursue claims under §1983 for disability discrimination even when they run parallel to ADA violations.
  7. The court looked to a Supreme Court case, Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee 555 U.S. 246 (2009), holding that a §1983 claim for an equal protection violation was allowed to run parallel to a title IX claim. In reaching that decision, the Supreme Court look to title IX’s enforcement mechanism, the scope of title IX rights and 14th amendment rights, and to the context and history of title IX.
  8. Based upon Fitzgerald, there are three things to consider when examining congressional intent to preclude a constitutional claim, and they are the statute’s: text and history; remedial scheme; and the contours of its rights and protections.
  9. The burden of proving preclusion of a §1983 claim lies with the defendant.
  10. Neither the statutory text nor the legislative history of the ADA contains a clear indication of congressional intent to preclude simultaneous constitutional claims.
  11. 42 U.S.C. §12201(b) expressly provides that nothing in the ADA shall be construed to invalidate or limit remedies, rights, and procedures of any federal law or law of any State or political subdivision of any State or jurisdiction providing greater equal protection for the rights of individuals with disabilities than afforded by the ADA. Such language is strong evidence that Congress did not intend to preclude remedies under §1983 for constitutional violations.
  12. The Committee on Education and Labor’s report as well as the Committee on the Judiciary’s report both make clear that the ADA was not intended to preclude other remedies, including those of constitutional law.
  13. The ADA’s relation to title VII of the civil rights act also suggests that Congress did not intend to include alternative remedies for disability discrimination as the ADA uses the procedures set forth in title VII. That relationship is important because at the time Congress passed the ADA in 1990, courts frequently held that the comprehensive scheme provided in title VII does not preempt §1983, and that discrimination claims may be brought under either statute, or both.
  14. At the time Congress enacted the ADA, the Sixth Circuit had already allowed plaintiffs to bring parallel concurrent title VII and §1983 constitutional claims.
  15. Congress’s presumed familiarity with title VII case law and the numerous references to title VII within the ADA suggest that Congress could not have intended for the ADA to preclude a §1983 claim.
  16. With respect to title II of the ADA, it’s remedies are tied into title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as far back as 1967 was routinely interpreted to allow for parallel and concurrent §1983 claims.
  17. Where an employee establishes employer conduct violating both title VII and rights derived from another source, whether it be the Constitution or federal statutes existing at the time of the enactment of title VII, the claim based on the other sources are independent of the title VII claim.
  18. In 2012, the Sixth Circuit held that a §1983 claim regarding a constitutional violation could survive despite title VII.
  19. Where the contours of such rights and protections between the two laws diverge in significant ways, it is not likely that Congress intended to displace §1983 suits enforcing constitutional rights even where there is some overlap in coverage.
  20. Rights created by the ADA are strikingly different from those already protected by the equal protection clause as the stated purpose of the ADA as found in 42 U.S.C. §12101(b)(1)-(3) is: providing a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities; to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities; and to ensure that the federal government plays a central role in enforcing standards set forth in the ADA on behalf of individuals with disabilities.
  21. In addition to invoking its power under §5 of the 14th amendment, Congress also invoked a broad power under the commerce clause.
  22. The protections available under the ADA and the equal protection clause are critically different from each other. For a person to prove an ADA claim, the plaintiff has to show: that she was in a class of persons protected by the ADA; that she was otherwise qualified for the position; that she suffered an adverse employment action; that the employer knew or had reason to know of her disability; and that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances raising a reasonable inference of unlawful discrimination.
  23. The equal protection clause requires a very different showing than the ADA. With respect to the equal protection clause, citing to Heller v. Doe, 509 U.S. 312 (1993), and to Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001), a plaintiff has to show that there was no rational basis for the State action to treat her differently because of her disability.
  24. Given the different requirements for proving the claim under the ADA and the equal protection clause, it makes sense that even if the comprehensive remedial scheme of the ADA somehow precluded utilizing §1983 to assert an ADA violation, the plaintiff still gets to assert a violation of the equal protection clause based on alleged disability discrimination through 1983.
  25. Since both the rights created by the ADA and the equal protection clause very significantly as do the elements required to prove both of those claims, that evidences a lack of congressional intent that the ADA precluded separate enforcement of individuals with disabilities constitutional rights.

III

Concurring Opinion of Judge Kethledge

  1. Extrinsic materials like legislative history have a role in statutory interpretation only to the extent they shed a reliable light on the enacting legislature’s understanding of otherwise ambiguous terms.
  2. Legislative history by itself has zero significance in statutory construction. Legislative history only matters to the extent it clarifies a specific ambiguity in the statutory text.
  3. Nothing in the text or structure of the ADA supports preclusion of a parallel constitutional claim. Accordingly, that is reason enough to hold that the ADA and constitutional claims can parallel each other. Therefore, referring to legislative history to justify that conclusion is completely unnecessary.

IV

Takeaway/Thoughts

  1. This case is absolutely huge with respect to the consequences of what happens when a State court engages in disability discrimination. Now, under this decision, a person with a disability has parallel tracks they can pursue (the ADA as well as procedural and substantive due process).
  2. Very interesting that the court cites to Heller and Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama for two reasons. First, as I have written in all of the Editions of my book, Understanding the ADA, which can be found here, in Heller, the United States Supreme Court assumed that persons with disabilities were in the rational basis class since both parties didn’t contest that. It is true that Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama said that persons with disabilities with respect to employment are in the rational basis class. However, Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama relied upon Heller, where a rational basis classification was assumed without argument, and upon Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U.S. 432 (1985), which would be more appropriately classified as a rational basis plus classification. So, putting persons with disabilities in the rational basis class with respect to employment does not follow squarely from precedent.
  3. Regardless of persons with disabilities being classified in the rational basis class when it comes to employment not squarely following from precedent, it is now settled that persons with disabilities are in the rational basis class with respect to employment. However, that is simply not the case with respect to title II of the ADA. Under Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004), which we discussed here, when it comes to accessing the courts, persons with disabilities are in a much higher classification than rational basis. Accordingly, that means rebutting an equal protection violation or a substantive due process violation under title II of the ADA means the State showing it had a compelling interest in the discrimination. Considering the ADA, that is going to be an almost impossible bar for the State to jump over.
  4. Since the equal protection clause and the substantive due process clause mirror each other, one wonders whether this decision cannot be used to address disability discrimination by a federal court, where it happens, even though the federal courts are not subject to the ADA.
  5. Will the courts split on this thereby leading to a U.S. Supreme Court decision? Hard to tell. However, the concurring opinion provides a way for the courts to avoid splitting, as any split would likely come from judges that frown on legislative history. It is possible, even if it is very unlikely, that the United States Supreme Court could decide to hear a matter without a split among the Circuits.
  6. Title I of the ADA requires exhaustion of administrative remedies, but keep in mind, that title II and title III of the ADA do not. When exhaustion is required is absolutely something the attorney has to know unless they want to be contacting their malpractice carrier.
  7. The concurring opinion believes that it was so clear that the ADA does not preclude equal protection claims that you don’t even have to look at legislative history. That is important because many people on the U.S. Supreme Court don’t like to look at legislative history unless they have to. That said, it is concerning that this is a title I case as persons with disabilities have not fared well at the Supreme Court level when it comes to disability discrimination in employment. I would feel more comfortable about a person with a disability chances at the Supreme Court over the issue of constitutional law and the ADA running in parallel to each other if this was a title II case.
  8. Failure to provide training on the ADA possibly could violate a person with a disability equal protection rights under this decision.
  9. The burden of showing preclusion is on the defense.

I am figuring on one more blog entry before our annual greatest hits issue. I have an entry in mind, but you never know what will come up.

2 Responses to Another Arrow in the Bag for Plaintiffs when it Comes to Disability Discrimination by Governmental Entities

Here is a general question regarding the ADA. Could you talk about time limits for making ADA complaints. I think I remember that there is generally a six month rule for making ADA complaints to the US Dept of Justice, but in certain instances it can be waived. Is that correct? What would federal law require for the state complaint procedures? In my state there is an umbrella commission established by statute to which ADA complaints, including Title II complaints of discrimination may be made. That commission has adopted a rule which requires the discrimination allegation to be made within one year of the last discriminatory event. Of coure the best practice would be for such a complaint to be made as soon as possible, but can a state establish an inflexible time limit and still comport with the requirements of the ADA? Thanks (You may post this and anything I send you online.)

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