S.D.Tex: sovereign immunity bars ADA Title II and Rehabilitation Act claims

A Texas district court dismissed the claims of a medical student who alleged she had suffered disability discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act.

The court concluded that sovereign immunity barred claims under both statutes. The court ignored four circuit court decisions regarding the abrogation of sovereign immunity under the ADA and ten circuit court decisions regarding the waiver of sovereign immunity under the Rehabilitation Act. The court alternatively found other grounds for dismissing the complaint. Baker v. University of Texas Health Science Center Houston, 2011 WL 1549263 (S.D.Tex. Apr. 21, 2011).  The judge was nominated by Reagan.

Ann Marie Rose Baker was a pediatrics resident at the University of Texas Health Science Center Houston (the ‘Center’). She was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS), which leads to symptoms that include limitations on her ability to stand or walk for more than ten minutes at a time and requires her to take frequent food and rest breaks. After poor performance reviews, she went through three months of remedial training and received a certificate for completing the training. She subsequently filed a complaint with the EEOC claiming that she had been subjected to derogatory comments and adverse treatment at her work. The EEOC did not find that the Center had violated any laws and it closed her file.

Baker sued claiming a violation of Title II of the ADA as well as a violation of the Rehabilitation Act. The district court opinion does not indicate that she sought injunctive relief, suggesting that the complaint only sought damages.  The Center filed a motion to dismiss.

The court determined that the Center was shielded by Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity for both claims. It treated sovereign immunity analysis for the ADA claim and the Rehabilitation Act claim as identical. It acknowledged that Title II of the ADA has abrogated state sovereign immunity in certain cases. However, citing United States v. Georgia, 546 U.S. 151 (2006), the court explained that Title II does not abrogate sovereign immunity in all cases. Instead, it must evaluate whether Title II has abrogated sovereign immunity on a “claim by claim basis.”

It examined three factors for whether sovereign immunity was abrogated for this particular claim. First, the conduct that the plaintiff alleged was in contravention of Title II was the Center’s decision to require the remedial training and the resulting delay to Baker’s receipt of certification. Second, this conduct did not also violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Third, Congress’ abrogation of sovereign immunity for the Title II violation that Baker claimed was invalid because the alleged violation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The alleged Title II violations did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment because only rational basis review applies to discrimination on the basis of disability and the state had a legitimate purpose for requiring the remedial training and courts are not well placed to “second guess the rationality of a state’s administration of academic institutions.”

The court failed to acknowledge or cite the four court of appeals cases that have held that Title II validly abrogates state sovereign immunity for suits regarding discrimination against university students based on their disabilities.  Bowers v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 475 F.3d 524 (3d Cir. 2007); Toledo v. Sanchez, 454 F.3d 24 (1st Cir. 2006), cert. denied, 127 S.Ct. 1826 (2007); Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason, 411 F.3d 474 (4th Cir. 2005); Ass’n for Disabled Americans, Inc. v. Florida Int’l Univ., 405 F.3d 954 (11th Cir. 2005).

The court further stated that the Rehabilitation Act and ADA had parallel remedies and therefore the analysis of sovereign immunity is the same.  However, the Rehabilitation Act relies upon a waiver of sovereign immunity, not the abrogation of sovereign immunity.  All ten circuit courts to consider the issue have upheld the Rehabilitation Act’s waiver of sovereign immunity, including the Fifth Circuit. Miller v.Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, 421 F.3d 342, 349 (5th Cir. 2005) (en banc). See Rochelle Bobroff & Harper Jean Tobin,Strings Attached: The Power of the Federal Purse Waives State Sovereign Immunity for the Rehabilitation Act, 42 Clearinghouse Review 16 (May/June 2008).

The court alternatively concluded that Baker’s claims would have failed even if sovereign immunity did not apply because she failed to make the prima facie case for disability discrimination. Disability discrimination claims under the ADA require a plaintiff to show three things: first that the plaintiff is a disability, second that she has been denied benefits or services to which she is entitled, and third that the denial is because of her disability. The court found that Baker failed to allege the second and third parts of the prima facie claim. The court argued that universities may require people with disabilities to attend school for a different period of time without violating Title II. The court also did not believe Baker had offered any evidence that the university had intentionally discriminated against her.

Finally the court decided that Baker would also not have been entitled to any damages, even if sovereign immunity did not shield the defendants, and even if she had alleged the prima facie case for disability discrimination.

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