Disabled Inmate Is Allowed Damage Suit

From Associated Press

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that a Georgia inmate should have a chance to prove that the state owed him damages for not accommodating his disability.

The court said that disabled state prisoners whose constitutional rights are violated behind bars can win damages, but the justices stopped short of deciding a more significant question: whether states can be opened to broader suits under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said that lower courts should reconsider the case of 41-year-old Georgia inmate Tony Goodman, who contends he was kept for more than 23 hours a day in a cell so narrow he could not turn his wheelchair.


Goodman had been supported in the case by the Bush administration, which argued that lawsuits should be allowed under the disabilities act.

“We’re pleased that in today’s decision the court limited liability solely to instances where there is an actual constitutional violation,” said Russ Willard, a spokesman for the Georgia attorney general.

Ruth Colker, a law professor at Ohio State University, said that although the decision was limited, it for the first time let disabled prisoners use the 1990 law to sue for damages. “States should be prepared for more lawsuits by inmates,” she said.

The Supreme Court had previously ruled that people in state prisons are protected by the law, and the follow-up case asked whether individual prisoners have recourse in the courts.

Tuesday’s opinion left room for some lawsuits.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a concurring opinion, said that both sides had a chance to “create a more substantial factual record” before the justices reconsidered the issue.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is retiring, was the deciding vote the last time justices ruled on the scope of the 1990 law, siding with the four more liberal court members in a 2004 decision, which held that states could be sued for damages for not providing the disabled access to courts.


Stevens cited that opinion Tuesday and said that it should be a “guide” in Goodman’s case.

Georgia prison officials had described Goodman as a chronic lawsuit filer who filed dozens of complaints contesting things like the temperature and lighting in his cell. He is in prison for drug possession and aggravated assault.