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2001 Term, Number 7 / January 11, 2002

Today the Supreme Court granted certiorari in one case of potential interest to the business community. Amicus briefs in support of the petitioners are due on Monday, February 25, 2002 and amicus briefs in support of the respondents are due on Wednesday, March 27, 2002. Any questions about these cases should be directed to Eileen Penner (202-263-3242) or Miriam Nemetz (202-263-3253) in our Washington office.

Disability-Based Discrimination Public Programs Punitive Damages. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. 794(a), and Section 202 of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. 12132, prohibit disability-based discrimination in public programs. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Barnes v. Gorman, No. 01-682, to determine whether punitive damages may be awarded against a municipal government in an implied private cause of action brought under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or Section 202 of the ADA.

Jeffrey Gorman, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, was involved in an altercation at a Kansas City bar. When he refused to leave the premises, off-duty police officers working as security guards arrested him and called for a police van. Because the van had no harnesses or straps for wheelchair-bound arrestees, the police removed Gorman from his wheelchair and restrained him on a bench in the back of the van. When the restraints failed during the trip to the police station, Gorman fell to the van floor and seriously injured his back.

Gorman sued the transporting police officer and the Board of Police Commissioners of Kansas City in federal district court, alleging that defendants had failed to make proper accommodations during his arrest and transport in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 202 of the ADA. A jury awarded Gorman over $1 million in compensatory damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages. The district court set aside the punitive damages award because it concluded that Congress did not intend to permit the recovery of punitive damages in actions brought under Section 504 or Section 202.

The Eighth Circuit reversed the district court's ruling with respect to punitive damages. 257 F.3d 738 (2001). According to the court of appeals, the Supreme Court's opinion in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Pub. Schools, 503 U.S. 60 (1992), compels the conclusion that punitive damages are available under Sections 504 and 202. Id. at 747-48. In Franklin, the Supreme Court held that "absent clear indication to the contrary by Congress, the federal courts have the power to award any appropriate relief in a cognizable cause of action brought pursuant to a federal statute." 503 U.S. at 70-71. In the Eighth Circuit's view, Congress had not provided a "clear indication" that punitive damages should be precluded in causes of action implied under Sections 504 and 202. The court dismissed as irrelevant the fact that Congress amended both the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA in 1986, 1987 and 1991 without "disturb[ing] decisions ruling punitive damages unavailable under sections 504 and 202" because, in the court's opinion, Congressional silence in those years could not "retroactively amend[]" the statutes. 257 F.3d at 747.

Like the Eighth Circuit, the Fourth Circuit has ruled that punitive damages are available in actions under Sections 504 and 202. See Pandazides v. Virginia Bd. of Educ, 13 F.3d 823 (4th Cir. 1994). The Third and Sixth Circuits disagree. See Doe v. County of Centre, 242 F.3d 437 (3d Cir. 2001); Moreno v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 99 F.3d 782 (1996) [link b].

This case is of obvious interest to municipalities and other entities subject to Sections 504 and 202. The case also may be important to the business community, because its disposition may affect the availability of punitive damages in other implied private actions brought pursuant to federal statute.

This Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw Supreme Court Docket Report provides information and comments on legal issues and developments of interest to our clients and friends. The foregoing is not a comprehensive treatment of the subject matter covered and is not intended to provide legal advice. Readers should seek specific legal advice before taking any action with respect to the matters discussed herein.

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