W.D.Mo: Rejects Challenge to Congress’s Authority to Abrogate Sovereign Immunity

In a case seeking only injunctive relief, the district court in Missouri rejected the argument that Congress did not have authority to abrogate sovereign immunity for violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) that do not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.  The court denied a motion to dismiss claims under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act challenging a prison’s refusal to allow an inmate to have his electric wheelchair delivered to him, at his own expense, for his use during his incarceration. The court also rejected the Defendants’ arguments that the complaint failed to state a claim. Rogers v. Mo. Dep’t of Corrs., No. 11-4088-CV-C-NKL, 2011 WL 3320521 (W.D. Mo. Aug. 2, 2011).  The judge was nominated by Clinton.  The ACLU of Eastern Missouri represents the plaintiff, Jeffrey Rogers.

The court began by noting that the Eighth Circuit has held that that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar prospective relief under the ADA in the prison context.  Randolph v. Rogers, 253 F.3d 342, 345 (8th Cir. 2001).  The court rejected the defendants’ reliance on United States v. Georgia, 546 U.S. 151 (2006), because that case involved damages claims.  The court also stated that the defendants had failed to rebut plaintiff’s argument “that Title II of the ADA constitutes the exercise of Congress’s prophylactic enforcement powers under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.”  Turning to the Rehabilitation Act, the court noted that the Eighth Circuit has held that the Rehabilitation Act constitutes a valid exercise of Congress’s spending power, and that a state waives its immunity with respect to Section 504 suits by accepting federal funds. Jim C. v. United States, 235 F.3d 1079, 1080 (8th Cir. 2000) (en banc), cert. denied sub nom. Arkansas Dep’t of Educ. v. Jim C., 533 U.S. 949 (2001).

Although the court concluded that it was unnecessary to rule on the constitutionality of the abrogation of sovereign immunity, “out of an abundance of caution,” the court granted the plaintiff’s unopposed Motion to Certify to the U.S. Attorney General that the Constitutionality of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act has been questioned.

The court then addressed the sufficiency of the allegations in the complaint. The defendants argued that there is no basis to conclude that having a non-electric wheelchair as opposed to an electric wheelchair is discriminatory or will deny Rogers the ability to participate in services, programs, or activities. The court rejected that argument, finding that Roger’s claims that his non-electric wheelchair denies him the full opportunity to participate in services, programs, and activities are “at least plausible.” Such services, programs, and activities include educational programs, use of the dining facilities, use of the library, use of the gym and the yard for recreation, social meetings, and religious activities. The court was careful to note that the question of whether Rogers was denied “meaningful access” to services is a factual issue that would need to be determined at trial.

The Defendants further asserted that Roger’s claims must be dismissed because they are based on a medical treatment decision. The court observed that Roger’s Complaint alleged that the Defendants had made a policy decision, not a medical decision, to deny him an electric wheelchair and assign him “a pusher to operate a manual wheelchair.” As a result, the court concluded that it would be improper for the Court to assume that the decision was a medical treatment decision.

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