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Judicial Decisions & Related Resources

A full review of litigation regarding disability law is beyond the scope of this publication, but we provide resources for readers who want information about disability court cases. We also have very brief synopses of two significant topics:

  • community integration ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court case Olmstead
  • ADA Amendments Act of 2008 to address concerns about previous ADA interpretations  

Olmstead

The Case
Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with disabilities who lived in Georgia nursing homes, asked State officials to allow them to move into their own homes in the community. After the State refused, Atlanta Legal Aid filed a lawsuit on their behalf. After appeals, the case was heard by the U. S. Supreme Court. In July 1999, the Supreme Court issued the Olmstead v. L.C. decision.

In Olmstead, the Court ruled that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits the unnecessary institutionalization of persons with disabilities. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, delivering the opinion of the Court wrote that, "states are required to place persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities." The Supreme Court ruled that services to persons with disabilities must be provided "in the most integrated setting possible" and that Ms. Curtis and Ms. Wilson were entitled to community options that will allow them to live outside nursing homes.  

Olmstead’s Significance

Disability activists believe that Olmstead is a historic decision that has implications similar to the one that ruled racial segregation illegal, Brown v. Board of Education. The decision opens the door for individuals with disabilities and their families to request and expect a full range of community services as alternatives to services provided in institutionalized settings.

The Olmstead v. L.C. decision challenges federal, state, and local governments to develop more opportunities for individuals with disabilities through accessible systems of cost-effective community-based services. The decision potentially has enormous implications for millions of individuals with disabilities, across the life span, who seek programs and services "in the most integrated setting possible" to allow full community participation. Implementation must consider the Court’s language that states must provide community settings “when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate.”  This language may create disincentives for state employees who work at institutions to recommend community placements.

In February 2001, President George W. Bush announced the New Freedom Initiative to promote full access to community life for persons with disabilities. This was followed, in June 2001, by Executive Order 13217 that directed federal agencies to assess all of their operating policies and practices to identify barriers to services for people with disabilities in the most integrated setting.  

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has the legal responsibility to investigate complaints from individuals who file complaints alleging that they are not receiving public services in the most integrated setting as required by the ADA. For more information about OCR’s community integration work see http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/civilrights/
resources/specialtopics/community/deliveringonthepromisereport.html
. This web page has other helpful links regarding national and state activities that followed the Olmstead decision.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) within DHHS provides funding to help implement systemic changes designed to improve community options for individuals with disabilities. Its most significant initiatives include the following:

  • Money Follows the Person Demonstration Grants. These programs are part of a comprehensive, coordinated strategy to assist States, in collaboration with stakeholders, to make widespread changes to their long-term care support systems.  They help States reduce their reliance on institutional care and to develop community-based long-term care opportunities. 
  • Alternatives to PRTF Demonstration Grants. These programs help States provide community alternatives to psychiatric residential treatment facilities for children.
  • Real Choice Systems Change. These grants support infrastructure changes that will result in effective and long-term improvements in community long-term support systems.
  • Direct Service Worker. These demonstration grants support strategies to help recruit, train and retain direct service workers who provide personal assistance to people with disabilities. 
  • Employment Initiatives. Authorized under the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 (TWWIIA), CMS provides funds to states through the Medicaid Infrastructure Grants (MIG) and Demonstration to Maintain Independence and Employment (DMIE) Program to create systemic change to support employment for people with disabilities.

For more information on these initiatives, see http://www.cms.hhs.gov/NewFreedomInitiative/

Response to ADA Interpretations: ADA Amendments Act of 2008

The landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by employers, public accommodations, state and local governments, public and private transportation, and in telecommunications. However, in the years following its passage, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a number of decisions that dramatically changed how the ADA was interpreted.  In most cases, these decisions were viewed as contrary to what Congress intended because they reduced protections for certain people with disabilities – including people with diabetes, epilepsy, heart disease, mental disabilities and cancer. For more information on specific court cases, please refer to the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities’ summary document, The Effects of the Supreme Court’s Decisions on Americans with Disabilities.

To address these concerns, a broad coalition of disability, civil rights and employer groups worked together with Congressional members to develop a legislative response.  The ADA Amendments Act focuses on the discrimination at issue and not the individual's disability.  It makes important changes to the definition of the term "disability" by rejecting holdings in several Supreme Court decisions and portions of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) ADA regulations. The Act retains the ADA's basic definition of "disability" as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. However, it changes the way to interpret the statutory terms. The Act’s most significant provisions do the following:

  • Directs EEOC to revise the portion of its regulations that defines the term "substantially limits"
  • Expands the definition of "major life activities" by including two non-exhaustive lists: (1) One  includes many activities that the EEOC has recognized (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating) and (2) A second includes major bodily functions (e.g., "functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, respiratory, neurological, brain, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions").
  • States that mitigating measures other than "ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses" shall not be considered in assessing whether an individual has a disability.
  • Clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.
  • Provides that an individual subjected to an action prohibited by the ADA (e.g., failure to hire) because of an actual or perceived impairment will meet the "regarded as" definition of disability, unless the impairment is transitory and minor.
  • Provides that individuals covered only under the "regarded as" prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodation.
  • Emphasizes that the definition of "disability" should be interpreted broadly.

On September 25, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-325) which is designed to restore the original intent of Congress to the law.  The ADA Amendments Act is effective as of January 1, 2009. 

For a comprehensive history of the Americans with Disabilities Act and emerging materials and associated with the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, go to Archive ADA, a website maintained by the Georgetown University Law Center.

Resources for Disability Court Cases

American Bar Association Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law

The Commission maintains two easy-to-use, searchable databases at http://www.abanet.org/disability/. The first has summaries of federal and state court opinions, legislation, and regulations in 22 subject matters covering civil and criminal mental disability law and federal and state disability discrimination law. It includes information that has appeared since 2003 in its publication, the Mental and Physical Disability Law Reporter. Subscribers can search by key word, subject area, jurisdiction, case name, date, and subject key number. The second database is an analysis of current law in those same 22 subject areas with links to court opinions, legislation and regulations summarized in the Reporter.

National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services (NASDDDS)

NASDDDS began posting online litigation articles covered in Community Services Reporter (CSR) and other publications regarding intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Litigation articles are organized by type of litigation (Access to Services, Community Placement of Institutionalized Persons, Limitations on Home and Community-Based Services, Institutional Reform/CRIPA, Death Penalty Exemption/Determination of MR/DD to be Exempt, and Miscellaneous) and then by state. The database begins with cases from May 2007. See http://www.nasddds.org/LitigationUpdates/index.shtml

Other Legal Sites of Interest

Findlaw: http://www.findlaw.com

Legal Information Institute: http://www.law.cornell.edu/lii.html