State Officials’ ADA Liability Under the 11th Amendment

In the recent case, Durham v. Kelley, 82 F.4th 217 (3d Cir. 2023), an inmate at the New Jersey State Prison who had been diagnosed with lumbar stenosis brought a pro se action, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), New Jersey’s Rehabilitation Act (RA), and the Eighth Amendment after prison officials refused his repeated requests for an accessible shower and took away his prescribed cane. Without these accommodations, the plaintiff experienced severe pain, ultimately causing him to suffer a fall while in the shower. The plaintiff thereafter remained in the prison’s clinic for several days for treatment. 

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissed the complaint in its entirety, finding that the prison officials were immune from claims for money damages under the Eleventh Amendment; that the plaintiff failed to state a claim for the officials’ deliberate indifference under the Eighth Amendment; and that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that he was disabled for purposes of the ADA or RA. 

The Third Circuit vacated the district court’s disposition and remanded the matter for further proceedings. In holding that the plaintiff had adequately pled his claims under the ADA, RA, and Eighth Amendment, the court noted that he was officially diagnosed with lumbar stenosis; had received a prescription to use a cane; and had requested accommodations from and reported his pain to numerous prison officials. The court also held that the prison had waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity from money damages for RA claims by accepting federal funds. 

Notably, the Third Circuit recognized that the question of whether money damages were available in suits against state officials under Title II of the ADA had not yet been addressed. In holding that the prison officials’ sovereign immunity had been waived in this case, the court considered whether Congress had unequivocally expressed an intent to abrogate sovereign immunity in such cases and, if so, whether it had done so pursuant to a valid grant of constitutional authority.

As to the first prong, the court noted that Title II straightforwardly provides: “[a] State shall not be immune under the eleventh amendment to the Constitution of the United States from an action in Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction for a violation of this chapter.” As to the second, the court found that Congress had the ability to abrogate the state’s sovereign immunity in this case because the plaintiff had asserted a parallel constitutional claim under the Eighth Amendment arising from the same conduct. As such, the plaintiff’s claims were permitted to proceed. 


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