Supreme Court Decides Yeskey Case

By Laura F. Rothstein
Health Law & Policy Institute

On June 15, 1998,  in Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey, No. 97-634, 1998 U.S. LEXIS 3888 (June 15, 1998), the Supreme Court decided that state prisons are covered under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by state and local governmental programs in receiving benefits of the public entity.  The Court found no ambiguity in coverage under Title II, although it declined to decide whether applying the ADA to state prisons is constitutional under the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment.  The decision affirms the Third Circuit decision on this issue.  SeeYeskey v. Pennsylvania, 118 F.3d 168 (3d Cir. 1997).

The case involved a prisoner in the Pennsylvania correctional system who was seeking to participate in a Motivational Boot Camp program for first-time offenders.  Completion of the program would result in parole in six months.  He was denied participation in the program because of his history of hypertension, which Yeskey claimed violated Title II of the ADA.  The Court held that the Motivational Boot Camp program was unambiguously one of the types of programs intended to be covered by Title II.  The Court referenced other programs, such as medical services, recreational activities, educational and vocational programs, and contact visitation programs as falling within the scope of coverage.  This reference is significant in light of the numerous cases in which such programs have been addressed by lower courts.  The Court was not persuaded by the argument that because a program is voluntary, it is not covered.   For case references, see Laura F. Rothstein, DISABILITIES AND THE LAW Section 9.10 (Westgroup 1997 and cumulative supplements).

It is important to recognize that while the Court held that Title II applies to state prisons, it does not mean that all cases brought by state prisoners will be successful.  Unlike the Supreme Court's decision in Yeskey, there have been a number of lower court cases in which the courts have "collapsed" the ADA analysis, by not separating out jurisdictional issues of whether the program is covered from the merits, such as whether the individual has a disability, whether the individual is otherwise qualified, whether there is a direct threat, and whether reasonable accommodations can be provided.  Unfortunately, in some of these decisions, the courts have addressed claims without substantive merit by deciding that the program is not covered or that the individual is not disabled.  The special concerns about security and safety may affect accommodation and qualification issues differently in the prison setting.

One example is White v. Colorado, 82 F.3d 364 (10th Cir. 1996), in which the court held that the ADA does not cover prison employment.  The case involved whether an HIV positive prisoner should be allowed to work in food service.  The court could have found no liability because of the unique conditions of prisons and HIV positive prisoners that there was a direct threat to safety posed in this case and therefore the prisoner would not be otherwise qualified.  Instead, the court resolved the issue by deciding that prison employment is not covered.  In light of the Yeskey decision, all such decisions must be re-evaluated on the basis of these other issues. See e.g. Amos v. Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services, 126 F.3d 589 (4th Cir. 1997) (ADA does not apply in claim that prison was indifferent to serious medical needs of disabled prisoners).

The holding in Yeskey is important in light of the growing number of cases involving the ADA and correctional facilities.  These cases involve a number of claims, including accommodations for deaf and hearing impaired prisoners and arrestees; architectural barriers in correctional facilities; exposure to second-hand smoke; access to health care for serious medical needs; and segregation and other treatment of prisoners with HIV.

The treatment of prisoners with HIV could be affected by the forthcoming Supreme Court decision in Abbott v. Bragdon, which may decide whether individuals who are HIV positive are considered to be disabled within the definitional coverage of the ADA.


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