Supreme Court of the United States
Decided June 20, 1996
Justice O’Connor, For the Court
|Topic: Economic Activity*||Court vote: 7–2|
Click any Justice for detailJoining O'Connor opinion: Justice GINSBURG Justice KENNEDY Chief Justice REHNQUIST Justice SCALIA Justice SOUTER Justice THOMAS
|Citation: 518 U.S. 187||Docket: 95–365||Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez|
* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database
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JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court. Section 504(a) of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 87 Stat. 355, 29 U. S. C. § 791et seq.(Act or Rehabilitation Act), prohibits, among other things, discrimination on the basis of disability "under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency." 29 U. S. C. § 794(a) (1988 ed., Supp. V). The question presented in this case is whether Congress has waived the Federal Government's sovereign immunity against awards of monetary damages for violations of this provision.
The United States Merchant Marine Academy is a federal service academy that trains students to serve as commercial merchant marine officers and as commissioned officers in the United States Armed Forces. The Academy is administered by the Maritime Administration, an organization within the Department of Transportation. Petitioner James Griffin Lane entered the Academy as a first-year student in July 1991 after meeting the Academy's requirements for appointment, including passing a physical examination conducted by the Department of Defense. During his first year at the Academy, however, Lane was diagnosed by a private physician as having diabetes mellitus. Lane reported the diagnosis to the Academy's Chief Medical Officer. The Academy's Physical Examination Review Board conducted a hearing in September 1992 to determine Lane's "medical suitability" to continue at the Academy, following which the Board reported to the Superintendent of the Academy that Lane suffered from insulin-dependent diabetes.
In December 1992, Lane was separated from the Academy on the ground that his diabetes was a "disqualifying condition," rendering him ineligible to be commissioned for service in the Navy/Merchant Marine Reserve Program or as a Naval Reserve Officer. After unsuccessfully challenging his separation before the Maritime Administrator, Lane brought suit in Federal District Court against the Secretary of the Department of Transportation and other defendants, alleging that his separation from the Academy violated § 504(a) of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U. S. C. § 794(a). He sought reinstatement to the Academy, compensatory damages, attorney's fees, and costs.
The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Lane, concluding that his separation from the Academy solely on the basis of his diabetes violated the Act. The court ordered Lane reinstated to the Academy, and the Government did not dispute the propriety of this injunctive relief. The Government did, however, dispute the propriety of a compensatory damages award, claiming that the United States was protected against a damages suit by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The District Court disagreed; it ruled that Lane was entitled to a compensatory damages award against the Government for its violation of § 504(a), but deferred resolution of the specific amount of damages due. 867 F. Supp. 1050 (DC 1994).
Shortly thereafter, however, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in Dorsey v. United States Dept. of Labor, 41 F.3d 1551 (1994), that the Act did not waive the Federal Government's sovereign immunity against monetary damages for violations of § 504(a). The court denied compensatory damages based on the absence, in any statutory text, of an "unequivocal expression" of congressional intent to waive the Government's immunity as to monetary damages, and this Court's instruction that waivers of sovereign immunity may not be implied, see, e. g., Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U. S. 89, 95 (1990).
In light of Dorsey, the District Court vacated its prior order to the extent that it awarded damages to Lane and held that Lane was not entitled to a compensatory damages award against the Federal Government. App. to Pet. for Cert. 5a-6a. Lane appealed. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit first rejected Lane's request for initial en banc review to reconsider Dorsey, then granted the Government's motion for summary affirmance. App. to Pet. for Cert. 1a. We granted certiorari, 516 U. S. 1036 (1996), to resolve the disagreement in the Courts of Appeals on the important question whether Congress has waived the Federal Government's immunity against monetary damages awards for violations of § 504(a) of the Rehabilitation Act. Compare, e. g., Dorsey, supra, at 1554-1555, with J. L. v. Social Security Admin., 971 F.2d 260 (CA9 1992), and Doe v. Attorney General, 941 F.2d 780 (CA9 1991).
Section 504(a) of the Act provides that"[n]o otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States... shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service." 29 U. S. C. § 794(a).
Section 505(a)(2) of the Act describes the remedies available for a violation of § 504(a): "The remedies, procedures, and rights set forth in title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shall be available to any person aggrieved by any act or failure to act by any recipient of Federal assistance or Federal provider of such assistance under [§ 504]." § 794a(a)(2). Because Title VI provides for monetary damages awards, see Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U. S. 60, 70 (1992) (noting that "a clear majority" of the Court confirmed in Guardians Assn. v. Civil Servo Comm'n of New York City, 463 U. S. 582 (1983), that damages are available under Title VI for intentional violations thereof), Lane reads §§ 504(a) and 505(a)(2) together to establish a waiver of the Federal Government's sovereign immunity against monetary damages awards for violations of § 504(a) committed by Executive agencies. While Lane's analysis has superficial appeal, it overlooks one critical requirement firmly grounded in our precedents:
A waiver of the Federal Government's sovereign immunity must be unequivocally expressed in statutory text, see, e. g., United States v. Nordic Village, Inc., 503 U. S. 30, 33-34, 37 (1992), and will not be implied, Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, supra, at 95. Moreover, a waiver of the Government's sovereign immunity will be strictly construed, in terms of its scope, in favor of the sovereign. See, e. g., United States v. Williams, 514 U. S. 527, 531 (1995) (when confronted with a purported waiver of the Federal Government's sovereign immunity, the Court will "constru[e] ambiguities in favor of immunity"); Library of Congress v. Shaw, 478 U. S. 310, 318 (1986); Lehman v. Nakshian, 453 U. S. 156, 161 (1981) ("[L]imitations and conditions upon which the Government consents to be sued must be strictly observed and exceptions thereto are not to be implied"). To sustain a claim that the Government is liable for awards of monetary damages, the waiver of sovereign immunity must extend unambiguously to such monetary claims. Nordic Village, 503 U. S., at 34. A statute's legislative history cannot supply a waiver that does not appear clearly in any statutory text; "the 'unequivocal expression' of elimination of sovereign immunity that we insist upon is an expression in statutory text." Id., at 37.
The clarity of expression necessary to establish a waiver of the Government's sovereign immunity against monetary damages for violations of § 504 is lacking in the text of the relevant provisions. The language of § 505(a)(2), the remedies provision, is telling. In that section, Congress decreed that the remedies available for violations of Title VI would be similarly available for violations of § 504(a) "by any recipient of Federal assistance or Federal provider of such assistance." 29 U. S. C. § 794a(a)(2). This provision makes no mention whatsoever of "program[s] or activit[ies] conducted by any Executive agency," the plainly more far-reaching language Congress employed in § 504(a) itself. Whatever might be said about the somewhat curious structure of the liability and remedy provisions, it cannot be disputed that a reference to "Federal provider[s]" of financial assistance in § 505(a)(2) does not, without more, establish that Congress has waived the Federal Government's immunity against monetary damages awards beyond the narrow category of § 504(a) violations committed by federal funding agencies acting as such-that is, by "Federal provider[s]."
The lack of clarity in § 505(a)(2)'s "Federal provider" provision is underscored by the precision with which Congress has waived the Federal Government's sovereign immunity from compensatory damages claims for violations of § 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U. S. C. § 791, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment decisions by the Federal Government. In § 505(a)(1), Congress expressly waived the Federal Government's sovereign immunity against certain remedies for violations of § 501:"The remedies, procedures, and rights set forth in section 717 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [which allows monetary damages]... shall be available, with respect to any complaint under section 501 of this Act, to any employee or applicant for employment aggrieved by the final disposition of such complaint, or by the failure to take final action on such complaint." 29 U. S. C. § 794a(a)(1).
Section 505(a)(1)'s broad language-"any complaint under section 501"-suggests by comparison with § 505(a)(2) that Congress did not intend to treat all § 504(a) defendants alike with regard to remedies. Had Congress wished to make Title VI remedies available broadly for all § 504(a) violations, it could easily have used language in § 505(a)(2) that is as sweeping as the "any complaint" language contained in § 505(a)(1). But our analysis need not end there. In the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Congress made perfectly plain that compensatory damages would be available for certain violations of § 501 by the Federal Government (as well as other § 501 defendants), subject to express limitations:"In an action brought by a complaining party under the powers, remedies, and procedures set forth in... section 794a(a)(1) of title 29 [which applies to violations of § 501 by the Federal Government]... against a respondent who engaged in unlawful intentional discrimination (not an employment practice that is unlawful because of its disparate impact) under section 791 of title 29 and the regulations implementing section 791 of title 29, or who violated the requirements of section 791 of title 29 or the regulations implementing section 791 of title 29 concerning the provision of a reasonable accommodation,... the complaining party may recover compensatory and punitive damages as allowed in subsection (b) of this section... from the respondent." Rev. Stat. § 1977A, as added, 105 Stat. 1072, 42 U. S. C. § 1981a(a)(2).
The Act's attorney's fee provision makes a similar point. Section 505(b) provides that, "[i]n any action or proceeding to enforce or charge a violation of a provision of this title, the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." 29 U. S. C. § 794a(b). This provision likewise illustrates Congress' ability to craft a clear waiver of the Federal Government's sovereign immunity against particular remedies for violations of the Act. The clarity of these provisions is in sharp contrast to the waiver Lane seeks to tease out of §§ 504 and 505(a)(2) of the Act.
Lane insists nonetheless that § 505(a)(2) compels a result in his favor, arguing that the Department of Transportation is a "Federal provider" within the meaning of § 505(a)(2) and thus is liable for a compensatory damages award regardless of our resolution of the broader sovereign immunity question. Reply Brief for Petitioner 8-9. We disagree. The Department of Transportation, whatever its other activities, is not a "Federal provider" of financial assistance with respect to the Merchant Marine Academy, which the Department itself administers through the Maritime Administration. At oral argument, Lane's counsel effectively conceded as much. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 7 (acknowledging that the Department of Transportation is not a federal provider with respect to the Academy "because of this Court's decision in [Department of Transp. v. Paralyzed Veterans of America, 477 U. S. 597, 612 (1986)], which indicates that funds that are actually provided to an entity that the Federal Government manages itself, which is what DOT does here... for the Merchant Marine Academy," do not render the agency a "Federal provider"). Lane argues that § 505(a)(2)'s reference to "Federal provider[s]" is not limited by the text of the provision itself to the funding activities of those providers, but instead reaches "any act" of an agency that serves as a "Federal provider" in any context. Reply Brief for Petitioner 9, and n. 11. In light of our established practice of construing waivers of sovereign immunity narrowly in favor of the sovereign, however, we decline Lane's invitation to read the statutory language so broadly.
Lane next encourages us to look not only at the language of the liability and remedies provisions but at the larger statutory scheme, from which he would discern congressional intent to "level the playing field" by subjecting the Federal Government to the same remedies as any and all other § 504(a) defendants. A statutory scheme that would subject the Federal Government to awards of injunctive relief, attorney's fees, and monetary damages when it acts as a "Federal provider," but would not subject it to monetary damages awards when, and only when, a federal Executive agency itself commits a violation of § 504(a), Lane posits, is so illogi cal as to foreclose the conclusion that Congress intended to create such a scheme.
The statutory scheme on which Lane hinges his argument is admittedly somewhat bewildering. But the lack of perfect correlation in the various provisions does not indicate, as Lane suggests, that the reading proposed by the Government is entirely irrational. It is plain that Congress is free to waive the Federal Government's sovereign immunity against liability without waiving its immunity from monetary damages awards. The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) illustrates this nicely. Under the provisions of the APA, "[a] person suffering legal wrong because of agency action, or adversely affected or aggrieved by agency action within the meaning of a relevant statute," is expressly authorized to bring "[a]n action in a court of the United States seeking relief other than money damages and stating a claim that an agency or an officer or employee thereof acted or failed to act in an official capacity or under color of legal authority." 5 U. S. C. § 702 (emphasis added).
In any event, Lane's "equal treatment" argument largely misses the crucial point that, when it comes to an award of money damages, sovereign immunity places the Federal Government on an entirely different footing than private parties. Petitioner's reliance on Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U. S. 60 (1992), then, is misplaced. In Franklin, we held only that the implied private right of action under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 supports a claim for monetary damages. "[A]bsent clear direction to the contrary by Congress," we stated, "the federal courts have the power to award any appropriate relief in a cognizable cause of action brought pursuant to a federal statute." Id., at 70-71. Franklin, however, involved an action against nonfederal defendants under Title IX. Although the Government does not contest the propriety of the injunctive relief Lane obtained, the Federal Government's sovereign immunity prohibits wholesale application of Franklin to ac tions against the Government to enforce § 504(a). As the Government puts it, "[w]here a cause of action is authorized against the federal government, the available remedies are not those that are 'appropriate,' but only those for which sovereign immunity has been expressly waived." Brief for Respondents 28.
And Lane's "equal treatment" argument falters as well on a point previously discussed: Section 505(a)(2) itself indicates congressional intent to treat federal Executive agencies dif ferently from other § 504(a) defendants for purposes of remedies. See supra, at 192-193. The existence of the § 505(a) (2) remedies provision brings this case outside the "general rule" we discussed in Franklin: This is not a case in which "a right of action exists to enforce a federal right and Congress is silent on the question of remedies." 503 U. S., at 69. Title IX, the statute at issue in Franklin, made no mention of available remedies. Id., at 71. The Rehabilitation Act, by sharp contrast, contains a provision labeled "Remedies and attorney fees," § 505. Congress has thus spoken to the question of remedies in § 505(a)(2), the only "remedies" provision directly addressed to § 504 violations, and has done so in a way that suggests that it did not in fact intend to waive the Federal Government's sovereign immunity against monetary damages awards for Executive agencies' violations of § 504(a). Given the existence of a statutory provision that is directed precisely to the remedies available for violations of § 504, it would be a curious application of our sovereign immunity jurisprudence to conclude, as the dissent appears to do, see post, at 209-210, that the lack of clear reference to Executive agencies in any express remedies provision indicates congressional intent to subject the Federal Government to monetary damages.
Even if §§ 504(a) and 505(a)(2) together do not establish the requisite unequivocal waiver of immunity, Lane insists, the "equalization" provision contained in § 1003 of the Reha bilitation Act Amendments of 1986, 100 Stat. 1845, 42 U. S. C. § 2000d-7, reveals congressional intent to equalize the remedies available against all defendants for § 504(a) violations. Section 1003 was enacted in response to our decision in Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U. S. 234 (1985), where we held that Congress had not unmistakably expressed its intent to abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity in the Rehabilitation Act, and that the States accordingly were not "subject to suit in federal court by litigants seeking retroactive monetary relief under § 504." Id., at 235. By enacting § 1003, Congress sought to provide the sort of unequivocal waiver that our precedents demand. That section provides:"(1) A State shall not be immune under the Eleventh Amendment... from suit in Federal court for a violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the provisions of any other Federal statute prohibiting discrimination by recipients of Federal financial assistance."(2) In a suit against a State for a violation of a statute referred to in paragraph (1), remedies (including remedies both at law and in equity) are available for such a violation to the same extent as such remedies are available for such a violation in the suit against any public or private entity other than a State." 42 U. S. C. § 2000d-7(a).
The "public entities" to which § 1003 refers, Lane concludes, must include the federal Executive agencies named in § 504(a), and those agencies must be subject to the same remedies under § 504(a), including monetary damages, as are private entities.
Although Lane's argument is not without some force, § 1003 ultimately cannot bear the weight Lane would assign it. The equalization provision is susceptible of at least two interpretations other than the across-the-board leveling of liability and remedies that Lane proposes. Under the first such interpretation, as proposed by the Government, the "public... entit[ies]" to which the statute refers are "the non-federal public entities receiving federal financial assistance that are covered by" each of the statutes to which § 1003(a)(1) refers: The Rehabilitation Act, Title VI, Title IX, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975. Brief for Respondents 22. The Government's suggestion is a plausible one: that § 1003(a)(2) refers to municipal hospitals, local school districts, and the like, which are unquestionably subject to each of the Acts listed in § 1003(a)(1). Section 504 alone among the listed Acts, however, extends its coverage to "program[s] or activit[ies] conducted by any Executive agency."
Section 1003 is also open to a second interpretation, one similar to the "leveling" interpretation suggested by petitioner: By reference to "public or private entit[ies]," Congress meant only to subject the States to the scope of remedies available against either public or private § 504 defendants, whatever the lesser (or perhaps the greater) of those remedies might be. Lane's reading of the statuteone that would suggest that all § 504(a) defendants, including the States, are subject to precisely the same remedies for violations of that provision-would effectively read out of the statute the very language on which he seeks to rely. That is, if the same remedies are available against all governmental and nongovernmental defendants under § 504(a), the "public or private" language is entirely superfluous. Congress could have achieved the result Lane suggests simply by subjecting States to the same remedies available against "every other entity," without further elaboration. The fact that § 1003(a)(2) itself separately mentions public and private entities suggests that there is a distinction to be made in terms of the remedies available against the two classes of defendants.
Although neither of these conceivable readings of § 1003(a)(2) is entirely satisfactory, their existence points up a fact fatal to Lane's argument: Section 1003(a) is not so free from ambiguity that we can comfortably conclude, based thereon, that Congress intended to subject the Federal Government to awards of monetary damages for violations of § 504(a) of the Act. Given the care with which Congress responded to our decision in Atascadero by crafting an unambiguous waiver of the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity in § 1003, it would be ironic indeed to conclude that that same provision "unequivocally" establishes a waiver of the Federal Government's sovereign immunity against monetary damages awards by means of an admittedly ambiguous reference to "public... entit[ies]" in the remedies provision attached to the unambiguous waiver of the States' sovereign immunity.
For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
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