Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanion
Decided on June 28, 1985; 473 US 234



A. Issues Discussed:
Governmental Authority (regulation), civil rights, 11th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Are states and state agencies subject to suit in federal court by litigants seeking retroactive monetary relief under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. 794, or are such suits proscribed by the Eleventh Amendment?


A. Background:

Respondent, Douglas James Scanlon, suffers from diabetes mellitus and has no sight in one eye. In November 1979 he filed suit against petitioners, Atascadero State Hospital and the California Department of Mental Health, in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, alleging that the hospital denied him employment as a graduate student assistant solely because of his physical handicaps. Respondent charged that the hospital's refusal to hire him violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 29 U.S.C. 794. Respondent sought compensatory, injunctive, and declaratory relief.

Section 504 provides that no handicapped person shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be subjected to discrimination under any program receiving federal financial assistance under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 505(a) makes remedies available for employment discrimination, set forth in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to any person aggrieved by any recipient of federal assistance. The District Court granted petitioners' motion to dismiss the complaint on the ground that respondent's claims were barred by the Eleventh Amendment. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Eleventh Amendment did not bar the action because the State received funds under the Act, and thus had implicitly consented to be sued as a recipient under 504.  Petitioners appealed the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to review case again.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Marilyn Holle argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Joseph Lawrence, J. LeVonne Chambers, Eric Schnapper, and Stanley Fleishman.
James E. Ryan, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were John K. Van de Kamp, Attorney General; Thomas E. Warriner, Assistant Attorney General; Anne S. Pressman, Supervising Deputy Attorney General; and G. R. Overton, Deputy Attorney General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation et al. by David L. Shapiro, Burt Neuborne, Charles S. Sims, Paul L. Hoffman, and Mark D. Rosenbaum; for Senator Cranston et al. by Bonnie Milstein; and for the Disability and Employment Advocacy Project of the Employment Law Center by Joan M. Graff and Robert Barnes. Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General Reynolds, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Cooper, Charles Fried, Christopher J. Wright, and Walter W. Barnett filed a brief for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal.

"The court properly recognized that the mere receipt of federal funds cannot establish that a State has consented to suit in federal court... The court erred, however, in concluding that because various provisions of the Rehabilitation Act are addressed to the States, a State necessarily consents to suit in federal court by participating in programs funded under the statute. We have decided today that the Rehabilitation Act does not evince an unmistakable congressional purpose, pursuant to 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, to subject unconsenting States to the jurisdiction of the federal courts. The Act likewise falls far short of manifesting a clear intent to condition participation in the programs funded under the Act on a State's consent to waive its constitutional immunity. Thus, where we view this statute as an enactment pursuant to the Spending Clause, Art. I, 8, we would hold that there was no indication that the State of California consented to federal jurisdiction…

The provisions of the Rehabilitation Act fall far short of expressing an unequivocal congressional intent to abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity. Nor has the State of California specifically waived its immunity to suit in federal court.

Held: The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed."

Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Powell, L.  Con  (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W.  Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B.  Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W.  Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.  Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W.  Pro  (Wrote dissenting opinion, joined Blackmun's dissent)
  • Blackmun, H.  Pro  (Wrote dissenting opinion, joined Brennan’s dissent)
  • Stevens, J.  Pro  (Wrote dissenting opinion, joined Brennan's and Blackmun's dissenting opinions)
  • Marshall, T.  Pro  (Joined Brennan's and Blackmun's dissenting opinions)


    The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the United States Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.