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Court Rules on Disabilities Law

June 17, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court delivered a blow Monday to disabled Americans who want cash awards from cities and states for failing to build wheelchair ramps and make other accommodations. It was the court’s fourth setback for the disabled this year.

Government agencies can be forced to pay actual damages but not punitive damages for violating a landmark disabilities law, the court ruled.

``We’re feeling a little bit battered by the Supreme Court,″ said Andrew Imparato, president of the Washington-based American Association of People with Disabilities.

The court heard four cases involving the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act in the term that ends next week. All four rulings went against the disabled.

With Monday’s decision in the least-watched case of the four, leaders of city and state agencies can relax in the knowledge they won’t face unpredictable jury awards, said Lawrence S. Robbins, attorney for a city police board sued in the case.

Some cities and states had argued they could be bankrupted by large jury awards.

The ruling, which is not limited to the ADA, restricts cash awards under laws that involve federal grants that do not spell out whether punitive damages are allowed.

``It’s very jarring,″ said AARP attorney Daniel Kohrman, who was studying the decision to see what laws, in addition to the disabilities act, could be affected.

The Supreme Court agreed 9-0 that a paraplegic man injured while being taken to jail in Kansas City, Mo., was not entitled to $1.2 million in punitive damages. Three justices, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, said the decision was written too broadly but they agreed with the outcome.

Stevens said the six-member majority of ``fearless crusaders″ was reaching into new territory, and ``its opinion is sure to have unforeseen consequences.″

Jeffrey Gorman, who uses a wheelchair, had been arrested for trespassing at a country-western bar called Guitar and Cadillacs. He claims officers removed him from his wheelchair, propped him on a bench in the van and tied him with his belt. During the trip to the jail, he fell and injured his shoulder and back.

``The Supreme Court said loud and clear that the ADA doesn’t mean anything,″ Gorman said Monday. He said cities will be able to get away with serious violations of ADA, which forbids discrimination.

The court’s ruling does not affect the $1 million in compensatory damages Gorman won from the police department.

The decision still allows lawsuits against boards and agencies that accept federal money. They may be forced to pay actual damages and make changes in accommodations but cannot be penalized with punitive damages awards, the large dollar verdicts intended to punish behavior and deter others.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said adding punitive damages in cases like this ``could well be disastrous.″ He said recipients of federal funds probably would not agree ``to exposure to such unorthodox and indeterminate liability.″

Besides Gorman, the court also ruled this term against an assembly line worker with carpal tunnel syndrome, an airline baggage handler with a back injury and a refinery worker with liver disease.

In those cases, the court made it more difficult for workers to demand special treatment because of partial physical disabilities; ruled that companies’ seniority policies almost always trump the demands of disabled employees; and said that disabled people cannot demand jobs that would threaten their lives or health.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis had ruled that Gorman was entitled to punitive damages under ADA, a law probably best known for mandating wheelchair ramps and handicapped-equipped bathrooms in public buildings. Monday’s ruling overturns that.

The case is Barnes v. Gorman, 01-682.

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