University of Texas v. Camenisch
Decided on Apr. 29, 1981; 451 US 390

Deaf graduate student sues University of Texas
for refusing to pay for a sign-language interpreter


A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (federal), 9th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Should a preliminary injunction be issued by a Federal District Court in suits by a deaf student alleging that a state university violated 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by refusing to pay for a sign-language interpreter?


A. Background:

Respondent, a deaf graduate student at the University of Texas alleged that the university had violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by refusing to provide him with sign-language interpreter services, which he claimed were necessary to the completion of his master's degree.  The university denied the respondent's request for such services on the grounds that he did not meet the university's established criteria for financial assistance to graduate students and therefore should pay for his own interpreter.  The US District Court for the Western District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction, ordering the university to provide the interpreter services, irrespective of the student's ability to pay for them.  The US Court of Appeals for the fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. 

On appeal, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Stephen J. Pollak, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Ralph J. Moore, Jr., John Townsend Rich, Marc P. Charmatz, Seymour DuBow, Paul R. Friedman, and Charles Smith.
Lonny F. Zwiener, Assistant Attorney General of Texas, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the brief were Mark White, Attorney General, John W. Fainter, Jr., First Assistant Attorney General, and Richard E. Gray III, Executive Assistant Attorney General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
"The legislative history of the Rehabilitation Act demonstrates that Congress intended to permit handicapped persons to sue to enforce rights guaranteed in § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act... that the University had discriminated against respondent by its unjustified refusal to make its oral instruction available to him in contravention of § 504 and valid HEW regulations. The relief ordered and affirmed was properly non-intrusive, and fully consistent with those regulations.

The holding that identical treatment was in these circumstances discriminatory within the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act is fully supported by cases in this Court… in any event, §504 imposes no burden on plaintiffs of demonstrating 'program specificity,' as every court to reach the question has agreed, and as the decision in Southeastern Community College indicates. Moreover, even were this Court to doubt that this is so, the University's failure to make a record on the issue, or even to assert that the undefined 'program' respondent completed was not federally funded, counsels against reversal of the Court of Appeals on this issue, and suggests at most a remand for development of the record.

If the case is remanded for this purpose, the Court should make clear, in accordance with ordinary principles of common law, that the University, which alone has access to the information in question, carries the burden of demonstrating that the relevant program is not federally funded… the Court should hold that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 confers a private right of action, that the University of Texas has discriminated against respondent in the circumstances of this case, and that there is no requirement of program specificity under Section 504, or that that issue is not properly before the Court in this case."

– ACLU brief in University of Texas v. Camenisch


Opposing Side
Marcia Robinson Lowry and Robert Levy filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al as amicus curiae.

Robert E. Williams and Douglas S. McDowell filed a brief for the Equal Employment Advisory Council as amicus curiae urging reversal.
Peter Buscemi filed a brief for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General McCree, Acting Assistant Attorney General Turner, and Jessica Dunsay Silver.

"The present case is replete with circumstances indicating the necessity for a full trial on the merits in the nisi prius court, where a preliminary injunction has become moot and an injunction bond has been issued. The proceedings here bear the marks of the haste characteristic of a request for a preliminary injunction: the parties have relied on a short stipulation of facts, and even the legal theories on which the University has relied have seemed to change from one level of the proceeding to another... the question whether a preliminary injunction should have been issued here is moot, because the terms of the injunction, as modified by the Court of Appeals, have been fully and irrevocably carried out. The question whether the University must pay for the interpreter remains for trial on the merits. Until such a trial has taken place, it would be inappropriate for this Court to intimate any view on the merits of the lawsuit. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore vacated, and the case is remanded to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion... It is so ordered."
Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W.  Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging remand; the US Supreme Court vacated and remanded the ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in a unanimous vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.