Olmstead v. L.C., By Zimring, Guardian Ad Litem
Decided June 22, 1999, 527 US 581


A. Issues Discussed: Civil rights, rights of handicapped
B. Legal Question Presented:

What is proper construction of the anti-discrimination provision contained in the public services portion (Title II) of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)? Should financial constraints solely determine whether states comply by the ADA guidelines concerning community treatment programs for the mentally handicapped?

A. Background:

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) made segregation and isolation of people with disabilities considered serious and pervasive forms of discrimination. Title II of the ADA, which proscribed discrimination in the provision of public services specified that no qualified individual with a disability could be excluded from participation in, or be denied the benefits of, a public entity's services, programs, or activities.

Respondents L.C. and E.W. were mentally disabled women; L.C. was also diagnosed with schizophrenia, and E.W., with a personality disorder. Both women voluntarily admitted into Georgia Regional Hospital at Atlanta (GRH), where they were confined for treatment in a psychiatric unit. In time, their treatment professionals concluded that each of the women could be cared for appropriately in community-based programs, however the women remained institutionalized at GRH.

Seeking placement in community care, L.C. filed suit against the state of Georgia (Petitioner). She alleged that Petitioner violated Title II in failing to place her in a community-based program once her treating professionals determined that such placement was appropriate. E.W. intervened, stating an identical claim. The District Court granted partial summary judgment for the women, ordering their placement in an appropriate community-based treatment program. The court rejected the State's argument that inadequate funding, not discrimination against L.C. and E.W. accounted for their retention at GRH. Under Title II, the court concluded, unnecessary institutional segregation constitutes discrimination which cannot be justified by a lack of funding. The court also rejected the State's defense that requiring immediate transfers in such cases would 'fundamentally alter' the State's programs.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment, but remanded for reassessment of the State's cost-based defense. It instructed the District Court to consider, as a key factor, whether the additional cost for treatment of L.C. and E.W. in community-based care would be unreasonable given the demands of the State's mental health budget.

Petitioned by the state of Georgia, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Michael H. Gottesman argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Steven D. Caley, Susan C. Jamieson, and David A. Webster.
Beverly Patricia Downing, Senior Assistant Attorney General of Georgia, argued the cause for petitioners. With her on the briefs were Thurbert E. Baker, Attorney General; Kathleen M. Pacious, Deputy Attorney General; Jefferson James Davis, Special Assistant Attorney General; and Jeffrey s. Sutton.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Respondent's side argued that the American Disabilities Actof 1990 protected them from discrimination, and that the Act must be enforced regardless of the state's financial constraints.

Petitioner's side argued that although the women were medically cleared for a community based treatment setting, financial constraints prevented this from happening.

Respondents did not encounter discrimination by reason of their disabilities because they were not denied community placement on account of those disabilities, nor were they subjected to discrimination for they identified no comparison class of similarly situated individuals given preferential treatment.


Opposing Side
Irving L. Gornstein argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Assistant Attorney General Lee, Deputy Solicitor General Underwood, Jessica Dunsay Silver, and Gregory B. Friel.

Additional briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Association on Mental Retardation et al. by Alan M. Wiseman, Timothy K. Armstrong, and Ira A. Burnim; and for the American Civil Liberties Union by Laurie Webb Daniel and Steven R. Shapiro.
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of Nevada et al. by Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General of Nevada; Anne B. Cathcart, Special Assistant Attorney General; Mike Moore, Attorney General of Mississippi; Robert E. Sanders, Assistant Attorney General; John Cornyn, Attorney General of Texas; Andy Taylor, First Assistant Attorney General; Linda S. Eads, Deputy Attorney General; and Gregory S. Coleman, Solicitor General; and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Ken L. Salazar of Colorado, Jeffrey A. Modisett of Indiana, Margery S. Bronster of Hawaii, Richard P. leyoub of Louisiana, Thomas F. Reilly of Massachusetts, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Charles M. Condon of South Carolina, Paul G. Summers of Tennessee, Christine O. Gregoire of Washington, and Gay Woodhouse of Wyoming; and for the National Conference of State Legislatures et al. by Richard Ruda and James I. Crowley.

"The integration and reasonable-modifications regulations issued by the Attorney General rest on two key determinations: (1) Unjustified placement or retention of persons in institutions severely limits their exposure to the outside community, and therefore constitutes a form of discrimination based on disability prohibited by Title II, and (2) qualifying their obligation to avoid unjustified isolation of individuals with disabilities, States can resist modifications that would fundamentally alter the nature of their services and programs. The Eleventh Circuit essentially upheld the Attorney General's construction of the ADA...

The ADA both requires all public entities to refrain from discrimination... and specifically identifies unjustified 'segregation' of persons with disabilities as a 'for[m] of discrimination,'... The identification of unjustified segregation as discrimination reflects two evident judgments: Institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life... and institutional confinement severely diminishes individuals' everyday life activities. Dissimilar treatment correspondingly exists in this key respect: In order to receive needed medical services, persons with mental disabilities must, because of those disabilities, relinquish participation in community life they could enjoy given reasonable accommodations, while persons without mental disabilities can receive the medical services they need without similar sacrifice...

[However,] to maintain a range of facilities and to administer services with an even hand, the State must have more leeway than the courts below understood the fundamental-alteration defense to allow. If, for example, the State were to demonstrate that it had a comprehensive, effectively working plan for placing qualified persons with mental disabilities in less restrictive settings, and a waiting list that moved at a reasonable pace not controlled by the State's endeavors to keep its institutions fully populated, the reasonable-modifications standard would be met...

For the reasons stated, we conclude that, under Title II of the ADA, States are required to provide community based treatment for persons with mental disabilities when the State's treatment professionals determine that such placement is appropriate, the affected persons do not oppose such treatment, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities."

Held: The Supreme Court affirms the Eleventh Circuit Court's decision in substantial part, vacates in part, and remands for further proceedings.
Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 3 Con
  • Ginsberg, R. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A.Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion, joined Kennedy's concurrence)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined minority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined minority opinion)

    The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the Supreme Court mostly affirmed the ruling of the Eleventh Circuit Court in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.