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Clearing the Way for Disability Claims

August 19, 2005

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that two universities can be sued under a federal law protecting people with disabilities because they had waived their state immunity by accepting federal funds. The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit cleared the way for a former employee to sue Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and a former student to sue the University of New Orleans.

The ruling came in a case that combined three disparate lawsuits with complicated legal histories, two of which involved universities. 

One was brought against Texas Tech by Elaine King Miller, a former associate dean for student services and professor at the health science center's pharmacy school. Suffering from a degenerative eye condition, she was diagnosed as legally blind in 1999, and a year later, according to court records, she sued the institution for allegedly failing to accommodate her disability in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against the disabled by programs receiving federal funds.

A lower federal court rejected Texas Tech's claim of immunity under the 11th Amendment of the Constitution, which shields state institutions from certain federal lawsuits. But a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit sided with Texas Tech in 2003. Miller then asked the entire Fifth Circuit court to hear her appeal.

That case was joined with two others, out of Louisiana. One of them involved Theodore Johnson, who sued the University of New Orleans, the Louisiana State University System and others in 2001 after he was denied financial aid, he said, after he was forced to withdraw from the university because of a partial paralysis of his left foot. He accused the university of discriminating against and failing to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled students, also under Section 504. A Fifth Circuit sided with him, too, and his appeal was merged with Miller's.

In considering their cases, the full Fifth Circuit court directed the two universities to explain why their arguments differed from those of a Louisiana school board whose position the court had roundly rejected this year in a case known as Pace v. Bogalusa School Board, which also argued it was shielded by the 11th Amendment.

Texas Tech and the Louisiana universities put forward several arguments, all of which the Fifth Circuit rejected. To the institutions' arguments that they did not have their states' authorization to waive immunity, the court told them they could not have it both ways: happily accepting their state legislatures' power to receive federal funds, but running from the responsibility of the obligations that come with those funds.

"The states (or their authorized agencies) may reject the condition of waiver of Eleventh Amendment immunity by rejecting the funds, or they may accept the funds and the conditions; they cannot, however, accept the benefits of the funds and reject the inextricably intertwined condition of waiver by claiming post hoc that the delegation of authority to accept the funds did not carry with it the authority to waive immunity. This is hornbook contract and agency law."

The appeals court also rejected Texas Tech's argument that it should not be sued under Section 504 because the federal grant money it received, for research and financial aid, among other things, is unrelated to the disabilities law.

"We agree with the four circuit courts that have addressed this issue and concluded that, if the involved state agency or department accepts federal financial assistance, it waives its Eleventh Amendment immunity even though the federal funds are not earmarked for programs that further the anti-discrimination and rehabilitation goals" of the disabilities law, the court wrote.

The appeals court sent the cases back to the lower courts to consider the merits of Miller's and Jackson's cases.

 

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