State settles disability lawsuit filed by inmates at Hagerstown

Fearing adverse rulings by courts, activists push for agreement in case

February 26, 2000|By Lyle Denniston and Thomas Waldron | Lyle Denniston and Thomas Waldron,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A widening national campaign to head off court rulings that would cut back on the legal rights of the disabled has reached Maryland, with the state agreeing to an out-of-court settlement late this week with inmates at a Hagerstown prison.

The settlement was the latest effort by disability rights activists to end states' claims that two federal laws that bar discrimination against the disabled cannot be enforced against the states.

A disability case from Florida ended that way this week in the Supreme Court. It appears that another, from Arkansas, might do so, too.

In Maryland, with Gov. Parris N. Glendening's involvement, the state attorney general's office, which had strenuously fought the inmates' lawsuit for years, agreed with lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland to a settlement that will pay the inmates $200,000.

State officials said both sides wanted to end a lawsuit that had run on for nine years. Advocates for the disabled contended that they had made their point that a settlement carried less political risk for state officials than would continuing with a courtroom assault on disability rights.

Under the accord, 12 disabled inmates at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown will share the $200,000 payment.

Thirteen inmates filed the claim in 1991, in a case known by the name of inmate Granville Amos. One of the 13 is now a fugitive and thus will not share in the payment.

The inmates said they had been denied access to work-release programs, equal access to bathrooms and athletic facilities, and adequate medical care because of their disabilities.

The Maryland Board of Public Works approved an offer to the inmates of $200,000 Wednesday, after Glendening and the Department of Public Safety agreed to it, said Maureen Mullen Dove, an assistant state attorney general. The two sides reached a final agreement Thursday.

The settlement was limited to the payment. Over the years, while the lawsuit was in court, Dove said, the Hagerstown institution "brought about some good changes" in the facilities to accommodate the disabled.

The Maryland case had become one of the more visible attempts by states to get out from under federal civil rights laws. Relying on the Supreme Court's trend toward favoring states' rights, more states have begun claiming constitutional immunity to lawsuits that seek to enforce civil rights.

Maryland has been making such a claim in the Hagerstown case, against the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Both are intended to bar discrimination based on disability.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear Maryland's challenge Tuesday. A three-judge panel of the appeals court had ruled against Maryland's claim of immunity in June, but the full court set aside that ruling and agreed to reconsider the dispute.

That court was notified formally yesterday of the settlement, and afterward it canceled the hearing, apparently ending the case.

The disability cases from Florida and Arkansas have been awaiting review by the Supreme Court. The justices agreed in January to hear both, days after the court ruled that state workers could not sue for age bias under another federal law. The court also raised doubts about the right of state workers to use a federal law to end sex discrimination in pay.

A hearing had been set for April 26 on the two disability cases. But it appears the court might not have a chance to rule because the Florida case has been settled. Disability rights advocates said settlement discussions on the Arkansas case were continuing.

Philip Fornaci, executive director of the Maryland Disability Law Center in Baltimore, said yesterday that "if the Supreme Court cases went away, that would leave Maryland front and center on the states' rights argument."

The Hagerstown case, he said, would probably have been "a huge disaster" for disability rights laws because Maryland was making its challenge before "a very sympathetic appeals court."

Fornaci said a coalition of 13 disability rights organizations in Maryland began pressing state officials for a settlement in December but got no response. Then, over the past two weeks, he said, the coalition had been "doing a lot of lobbying around the issue, to settle this case."

Dove stressed the importance of the governor's intervention but said the initiative for the settlement had come from the staff of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

The coalition, Fornaci said, intensified its lobbying after lawyers for the state filed a brief in the appeals court Feb. 11. In that brief, the state argued that both laws were unconstitutional because Congress had exceeded its powers to remedy any rights the inmates had under the Constitution.

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