Plaintiff, Ann McCauley (“McCauley”), has lupus erythematous, which is an autoimmune disease that causes sensitivity to chemicals and odors found in hygiene products.
In 2005, McCauley sued the driver of another car and Allstate Insurance after a car accident. This case proceeded in the Bibb County Court before Judge Self. In 2009, McCauley filed claims against members of the Bibb County Court, alleging that the courts violated her rights under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by denying her access to the courts. Specifically, McCauley alleged the Bibb County Court and Judge Self: (1) did not appoint a contact person; (2) had an unresponsive staff; and (3) did not properly train its staff.
The presiding magistrate explained that McCauley’s Rehabilitation Act claim against the Bibb County failed because McCauley did not allege that the court received federal funding. But the magistrate allowed McCauley's Title II claim to proceed, which alleged that Bibb County Court officials failed to accommodate her disability. The Bibb County Court and Judge Self filed a motion to dismiss these claims, arguing that they were immune from McCauley’s suit under the Eleventh Amendment principle of Sovereign Immunity. The magistrate recommended granting their motion to dismiss, finding that the Bibb County Court and Judge Self were immune under the Eleventh Amendment.
The magistrate also determined that McCauley had not shown that her claims against the Bibb County Court and Judge Self rose to the level of Title II violations. The Court found that McCauley did not sufficiently demonstrate that these accommodations were necessary in order for her to access the court, because she was permitted to file her claim electronically and to make court appearances via telephone, which allowed her case to be decided on the merits. The Court found that McCauley was not denied access to the courts simply because she had a difficult time interacting with staff who didn’t fully understand her disability. McCauley appealed.
States are usually immune from suits brought by citizens under the Eleventh Amendment’s principle of Sovereign Immunity. Congress may abrogate that immunity by expressing a clear intent to do so, as long as it is constitutionally allowed. In Tennessee v. Lane, the Supreme Court of the United States held that “Title II, as it applies to the class of cases implicating the fundamental right of access to the courts, constitutes a valid exercise of Congress' ... authority to enforce the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Since this case involved denial of access to the courts, as did Lane, the Eleventh Circuit held that the Bibb County court and Judge were not immune from the claim under the Eleventh Amendment.
Title II of the ADA prohibits public entities from excluding qualified individuals from participating in services, programs, and activities because of the individual’s disability. The Eleventh Circuit held that even if all of McCauley’s allegations were taken as true, the Bibb County Court did not violate the ADA because McCauley did not show that she was actually injured by the defendants’ actions or failure to act. She was permitted to appear at her hearing via telephone and file her case electronically. Even if Bibb County Court failed to provide a single contact person, failed to train the court staff to interact with her sensitively, and the court was not appropriately sensitive to her needs, she was able to access the courts and her case was heard on the merits. Because she was not denied access to the court, the court found that Bibb County did not violate the ADA.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s suit finding that the defendants did not violate Title II of the ADA. However the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision of the District Court finding that Bibb County and the Judge did not have immunity in these cases.
In this case, the Eleventh Circuit recognized that ensuring access to the courts under ADA Title II could be accomplished by providing reasonable accommodations such as remote access for electronic court document filing and the ability to appear at a hearing via telephone. This holding may broaden the scope of access to the courts for individuals with disabilities that have difficulty physically appearing in courtrooms, and decrease the practical barriers facing plaintiffs with a variety of disabilities.