Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Judge Sweet Applies Georgia and Lane

In an opinion issued last week in Degrafinreid v. Ricks, 2006 WL 489407 (S.D.N.Y., Mar. 1, 2006), Judge Sweet applied the Supreme Court's decisions in United States v. Georgia and Tennessee v. Lane to hold that the prisoner plaintiff could proceed with his ADA claim for money dmages against the State of New York. Although he had ruled in 2004 that the plaintiff's claims were barred by sovereign immunity, Judge Sweet granted reconsideration in light of Georgia and Lane. The plaintiff alleged that the state denied him a working hearing aid and batteries, conduct that, in the courts view, would violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause as well as the ADA. Because the plaintiff alleged conduct that violated not just the ADA but also the Constitution itself, Judge Sweet held that Georgia was controlling: "Since Degrafinreid has alleged an Eighth Amendment violation, Title II of the ADA, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Georgia, provides for a private right of action against the State for monetary damages. As such, Defendants do not benefit from the Eleventh Amendment's grant of state sovereign immunity and their motion to dismiss Degrafinreid's ADA claim for monetary damages is denied."

In addition to his ADA and constitutional claims, the plaintiff asserted a claim under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In his opinion, Judge Sweet held that the state had waived any sovereign immunity against Section 504 suits. The Second Circuit held in Garcia v. SUNY Health Sciences Center (2001) that states could not have knowingly and voluntarily waived sovereign immunity against Section 504 suits by accepting federal funds at a time when they could reasonably have thought that the ADA stripped them of sovereign immunity anyway. No other circuit has followed the Second Circuit in that ruling (except the Fifth Circuit, briefly, before reversing itself en banc). But Judge Sweet held that, even under Garcia, the state knowingly waived its sovereign immunity here. Because the conduct at issue took place in 2002 -- after both the Supreme Court and the Second Circuit had suggested that Congress lacked power to abrogate state sovereign immunity against ADA suits -- Judge Sweet held that, by that time, the state had to know it was giving up something when it accepted federal funds. (The irony, of course, is that Judge Sweet himself says that the ADA does validly abrogate sovereign immunity here.)


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