Justices Curb Bias Suits by Handicapped : Rule Such Cases May Not Be Brought Against States in U.S. Courts

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, upholding the constitutional limits on suits against states, ruled 5 to 4 on Friday that a state agency may not be sued in federal court for discrimination against the handicapped.

The justices barred an attempt by a former college student from San Luis Obispo to win compensatory damages from the state of California on the grounds that he had unfairly been denied a job at Atascadero state hospital because he was blind in one eye and suffered from diabetes.

Sued Under Federal Law

Lawyers for the former student, Douglas James Scanlon, had brought the suit under the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination in federally assisted programs. Like many institutions, the state hospital receives federal aid.


The court found that the suit was forbidden by the 11th Amendment, which protects states and state agencies from suits by private individuals without permission of the state or authorization from Congress. The justices said that Congress had failed to clearly authorize such suits under the act--and that the state’s acceptance of federal aid under the act was not enough to establish its consent to be sued.

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., writing for the majority, pointed to the intent of the framers of the Constitution to maintain strong state governments to counterbalance the power of the federal government.

“Given their constitutional role, the states are not like any other class of recipients of federal aid,” Powell said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices Byron R. White, William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor.

Wants Doctrine Restudied


But the four dissenters, in a detailed opinion by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., said that the time was ripe for a reexamination of the doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which protects the states against suit.

“The court has put the federal judiciary in the unseemly position of exempting the states from compliance with laws that bind every other legal actor in our nation,” Brennan said.

The decision was an important victory for California state authorities and the Reagan Administration, which had jointly urged the court to bar Scanlon’s suit. But it was greeted with dismay by lawyers representing the handicapped.

“This is a tremendous setback for disabled persons,” said Joseph Lawrence, legal director of the Western Law Center for the Handicapped in Los Angeles, which represented Scanlon in the case.


Lawrence said that Scanlon may now bring a suit in state court. He noted that in California, unlike some states, suits asserting discrimination by the state against the handicapped may be brought in state courts.

Scanlon had brought the suit in 1979, after he was turned down for employment as a graduate assistant recreational therapist. The hospital said that it could not hire him because of his handicap.

Court Let Suit Proceed

The case remained in the courts for some time, but last year a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that Scanlon might proceed with the suit. The appellate court found that the state, in accepting federal funds under the act, had implicitly consented to be sued.


The justices reversed the appeals court (Atascadero vs. Scanlon, 84-351). Congress, Powell wrote, may make an exception to the states’ immunity “only by making its intention unmistakably clear” in the statute--and Congress in this instance had failed to do so.