Keywords: sovereign immunity, employment, state & local government
Update: see below Subsequent Legal Developments.
Patricia Garrett was a supervising nurse employed by the University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital ("University"). In August 1994, Ms. Garrett was diagnosed with breast cancer. She took time off for a series of treatments and returned to work full-time in September of that year. Due to her ongoing treatments, Ms. Garrett requested and received intermittent medical leave over the next year. At work, Ms. Garrett was able to complete all of her duties but needed extra time and had to take frequent breaks because of her fatigue. Radiation therapy caused burns to her right arm that limited her lifting ability. At home, she could not perform ordinary household tasks such as cleaning, laundry, and cooking, and it took her twice as long to complete her self-care tasks. In January 1995, she was hospitalized for an infection, and took full medical leave in March. She returned to work in July of that year. Two weeks later, she was transferred to a lower-paying position at a different University facility.
The parties did not dispute that she was qualified for her positions or that she had breast cancer. Ms. Garrett contended that she was substantially limited in the major life activities of caring for herself, ordinary household chores, lifting, and working because of the side effects from her cancer treatments. The Court, however, determined her limitations (a) were temporary because they were simultaneous with her treatments, (b) were not present at the time of the alleged adverse employment action, and (c) were not sufficiently limiting in any major life activity to qualify as a disability.
To make this claim, Ms. Garrett had to demonstrate she (a) engaged in a protected activity, (b) suffered an adverse employment action, and (c) the protected activity was causally connected to the adverse employment action. The Court assumed that making a medical leave request was a protected activity.
The University argued that Ms. Garrett requested the transfer, and therefore the lower pay, transfer, and approval of Ms. Garrett's request were legitimate, non-retaliatory, and non-discriminatory. There remains a genuine issue of material fact (i.e., disagreement) whether Ms. Garrett was demoted or voluntarily transferred to a lower-paying position. Nonetheless, the Court determined that Ms. Garrett failed to show a causal connection between her request for leave and her transfer, because the timing of the leave request and the transfer were too far removed (over 4 months) to meet the standard of temporal proximity required by Supreme Court precedent.
The Court ruled in favor of the University and affirmed the dismissal of the suit. While it was unclear whether Ms. Garrett voluntarily requested a transfer to a lower-paying job, the Court decided that Ms. Garrett failed to show she was a person with a disability at the time of her transfer. The Court also found that Ms. Garrett failed to show a causal connection between her request for leave and her transfer for the retaliation claim to stand.
This case has been through an extensive series of judicial proceedings, starting back in January 1998 when it was heard in the federal district court for the Northern District of Alabama. Originally the plaintiff brought claims under the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The district court dismissed all three claims on the basis of state sovereign immunity. The principle of sovereign immunity is a constitutional limitation on federal judicial power, arising from the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It protects state autonomy by immunizing states from suits in federal court.
In 1999 on appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court as to the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims, concluding state sovereignty had been waived, but affirmed sovereign immunity on the FMLA claim. The University requested review by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the ADA sovereign immunity issue only. In 2001 the Supreme Court concluded, in part, that the legislative record of the ADA failed to show Congress identified a pattern of state discrimination in employment against persons with disabilities, and thus did not support removing the states' Eleventh Amendment immunity from suits for money damages under the ADA.
On remand, applying Eleventh Circuit precedent that Rehabilitation Act claims were bound by ADA precedent, in 2001 the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims were barred by sovereign immunity. Then in a 2001 rehearing, the Eleventh Circuit determined the district court would have to consider whether the University waived its sovereign immunity to Ms. Garrett's suit under the Rehabilitation Act on a different basis, that is, by accepting federal funds.
In 2002, the district court concluded the University did not waive its immunity by accepting federal funds, and again Ms. Garrett appealed. In 2003, the Eleventh Circuit concluded the University had waived its sovereign immunity, and thus, individuals can sue a state agency for money damages under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The case was remanded once again to the district court and decided in January, 2005. The district court held that (a) Ms. Garrett’s transfer to a lower-paying position was not an adverse employment action under the Rehabilitation Act, (b) Ms. Garrett was not a "qualified person with a disability", and (c) Ms. Garrett's transfer did not constitute retaliation under the Rehabilitation Act. On November 15, 2007, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed this decision, and likely closed the book on the Garrett case.
In a 2003 Garrett decision, noted above, the Eleventh Circuit held that by accepting federal funds, a Title II state entity, such as a state University, waives its sovereign immunity to suit by a citizen. This ruling was important for Plaintiffs for whom injunctive relief (e.g., the court ordering the University to give Ms. Garrett her job back) would not be effective. In Ms. Garrett's case, her previous job was no longer vacant, and she did not wish to return to a work environment that she considered hostile. Thus, individuals can sue a state agency for money damages under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Since the 2003 Garrett decision, the First, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have agreed that the receipt of federal funds waives a State's sovereign immunity for purposes of Rehabilitation Act claims.
The Second Circuit concluded a state may waive its sovereign immunity to suit under the Rehabilitation Act for receipt of federal funds if it intentionally relinquishes its sovereign immunity. The District of Columbia Circuit agreed that the receipt of federal funds waives a State's sovereign immunity for purposes of claims under the Civil Rights Remedies Equalization Act. The Fourth Circuit has agreed, when reviewing a federal, sex-based discrimination claim, that if a State voluntarily accepts federal funds, knowing it will waive sovereign immunity by doing so, the State does indeed waive its sovereign immunity. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which generally hears only specialized cases, has not addressed the issue.
In conclusion, twelve of the thirteen U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have held, at minimum, that when a state voluntarily accepts federal funds, and is aware that if it were to violate a federal statute that expressly waives state sovereign immunity, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, it will have waived its sovereign immunity to suit under that statute.
As of January 1, 2009, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) broadened the scope of the ADA to make it easier for people with disabilities to procure protections. Notably, temporary disabilities may now qualify as a “disability” under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. Thus, the temporary limitation analysis used in Garrett is no longer valid, and Ms. Garrett would be covered under the ADA as a person with a disability.
The ADAAA broadened the scope of the term “substantially limits” to expand coverage and provide a standard that is easier for people with disabilities to meet and obtain coverage. A disability is “substantially limiting” if it “substantially limits” major life activities to a degree of function that is lower than that of the general population. The “substantially limits” standard is not intended to be a demanding standard to meet. Rather, the primary focus of an ADA case is to be whether a covered entity has complied with its legal obligations and whether discrimination has occurred.
Under the current ADAAA, a temporary impairment expected to last less than six months can qualify as a substantially limiting disability as defined by the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.