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OLMSTEAD V. L. C. (98-536) 527 U.S. 581 (1999)
138 F.3d 893, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.
Syllabus
 
Opinion
[ Ginsburg ]
Concurrence
[ Stevens ]
Concurrence
[ Kennedy ]
Dissent
[ Thomas ]
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Syllabus

NOTE:  Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.
The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.
See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

OLMSTEAD, COMMISSIONER, GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN RESOURES, et al. v. L. C.,
by zimring, guardian ad litem and next
friend, et al.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT


No. 98—536. Argued April 21, 1999–Decided June 22, 1999

In the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Congress described the isolation and segregation of individuals with disabilities as a serious and pervasive form of discrimination. 42 U.S.C. § 12101(a)(2), (5). Title II of the ADA, which proscribes discrimination in the provision of public services, specifies, inter alia, that no qualified individual with a disability shall, “by reason of such disability,” be excluded from participation in, or be denied the benefits of, a public entity’s services, programs, or activities. §12132. Congress instructed the Attorney General to issue regulations implementing Title II’s discrimination proscription. See §12134(a). One such regulation, known as the “integration regulation,” requires a “public entity [to] administer … programs … in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.” 28 CFR § 35.130(d). A further prescription, here called the “reasonable-modifications regulation,” requires public entities to “make reasonable modifications” to avoid “discrimination on the basis of disability,” but does not require measures that would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the entity’s programs. §35.130(b)(7).

        Respondents L. C. and E. W. are mentally retarded women; L. C. has also been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and E. W., with a personality disorder. Both women were voluntarily admitted to Georgia Regional Hospital at Atlanta (GRH), where they were confined for treatment in a psychiatric unit. Although their treatment professionals eventually concluded that each of the women could be cared for appropriately in a community-based program, the women remained institutionalized at GRH. Seeking placement in community care, L. C. filed this suit against petitioner state officials (collectively, the State) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title II. She alleged that the State violated Title II in failing to place her in a community-based program once her treating professionals determined that such placement was appropriate. E. W. intervened, stating an identical claim. The District Court granted partial summary judgment for the women, ordering their placement in an appropriate community-based treatment program. The court rejected the State’s argument that inadequate funding, not discrimination against L. C. and E. W. “by reason of [their] disabilit[ies],” accounted for their retention at GRH. Under Title II, the court concluded, unnecessary institutional segregation constitutes discrimination per se, which cannot be justified by a lack of funding. The court also rejected the State’s defense that requiring immediate transfers in such cases would “fundamentally alter” the State’s programs. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s judgment, but remanded for reassessment of the State’s cost-based defense. The District Court had left virtually no room for such a defense. The appeals court read the statute and regulations to allow the defense, but only in tightly limited circumstances. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit instructed the District Court to consider, as a key factor, whether the additional cost for treatment of L. C. and E. W. in community-based care would be unreasonable given the demands of the State’s mental health budget.

Held:  The judgment is affirmed in part and vacated in part, and the case is remanded.

138 F.3d 893, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

    Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III—A, concluding that, under Title II of the ADA, States are required to place persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities. Pp. 11—18.

    (a)  The integration and reasonable-modifications regulations issued by the Attorney General rest on two key determinations: (1) Unjustified placement or retention of persons in institutions severely limits their exposure to the outside community, and therefore constitutes a form of discrimination based on disability prohibited by Title II, and (2) qualifying their obligation to avoid unjustified isolation of individuals with disabilities, States can resist modifications that would fundamentally alter the nature of their services and programs. The Eleventh Circuit essentially upheld the Attorney General’s construction of the ADA. This Court affirms the Court of Appeals decision in substantial part. Pp. 11—12.

    (b)  Undue institutionalization qualifies as discrimination “by reason of … disability.” The Department of Justice has consistently advocated that it does. Because the Department is the agency directed by Congress to issue Title II regulations, its views warrant respect. This Court need not inquire whether the degree of deference described in Chevron U.S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 844, is in order; the well-reasoned views of the agencies implementing a statute constitute a body of experience and informed judgment to which courts and litigants may properly resort for guidance. E.g., Bragdon v. Abbott, 524 U.S. 624, 642. According to the State, L. C. and E. W. encountered no discrimination “by reason of” their disabilities because they were not denied community placement on account of those disabilities, nor were they subjected to “discrimination,” for they identified no comparison class of similarly situated individuals given preferential treatment. In rejecting these positions, the Court recognizes that Congress had a more comprehensive view of the concept of discrimination advanced in the ADA. The ADA stepped up earlier efforts in the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to secure opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to enjoy the benefits of community living. The ADA both requires all public entities to refrain from discrimination, see §12132, and specifically identifies unjustified “segregation” of persons with disabilities as a “for[m] of discrimination,” see §§12101(a)(2), 12101(a)(5). The identification of unjustified segregation as discrimination reflects two evident judgments: Institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life, cf., e.g., Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 755; and institutional confinement severely diminishes individuals’ everyday life activities. Dissimilar treatment correspondingly exists in this key respect: In order to receive needed medical services, persons with mental disabilities must, because of those disabilities, relinquish participation in community life they could enjoy given reasonable accommodations, while persons without mental disabilities can receive the medical services they need without similar sacrifice. The State correctly uses the past tense to frame its argument that, despite Congress’ ADA findings, the Medicaid statute “reflected” a congressional policy preference for institutional treatment over treatment in the community. Since 1981, Medicaid has in fact provided funding for state-run home and community-based care through a waiver program. This Court emphasizes that nothing in the ADA or its implementing regulations condones termination of institutional settings for persons unable to handle or benefit from community settings. Nor is there any federal requirement that community-based treatment be imposed on patients who do not desire it. In this case, however, it is not genuinely disputed that L. C. and E. W. are individuals “qualified” for noninstitutional care: The State’s own professionals determined that community-based treatment would be appropriate for L. C. and E. W., and neither woman opposed such treatment. Pp. 12—18.

    Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice O’Connor, Justice Souter, and Justice Breyer, concluded in Part III—B that the State’s responsibility, once it provides community-based treatment to qualified persons with disabilities, is not boundless. The reasonable-modifications regulation speaks of “reasonable modifications” to avoid discrimination, and allows States to resist modifications that entail a “fundamenta[l] alter[ation]” of the States’ services and programs. If, as the Eleventh Circuit indicated, the expense entailed in placing one or two people in a community-based treatment program is properly measured for reasonableness against the State’s entire mental health budget, it is unlikely that a State, relying on the fundamental-alteration defense, could ever prevail. Sensibly construed, the fundamental-alteration component of the reasonable-modifications regulation would allow the State to show that, in the allocation of available resources, immediate relief for the plaintiffs would be inequitable, given the responsibility the State has undertaken for the care and treatment of a large and diverse population of persons with mental disabilities. The ADA is not reasonably read to impel States to phase out institutions, placing patients in need of close care at risk. Nor is it the ADA’s mission to drive States to move institutionalized patients into an inappropriate setting, such as a homeless shelter, a placement the State proposed, then retracted, for E. W. Some individuals, like L. C. and E. W. in prior years, may need institutional care from time to time to stabilize acute psychiatric symptoms. For others, no placement outside the institution may ever be appropriate. To maintain a range of facilities and to administer services with an even hand, the State must have more leeway than the courts below understood the fundamental-alteration defense to allow. If, for example, the State were to demonstrate that it had a comprehensive, effectively working plan for placing qualified persons with mental disabilities in less restrictive settings, and a waiting list that moved at a reasonable pace not controlled by the State’s endeavors to keep its institutions fully populated, the reasonable-modifications standard would be met. In such circumstances, a court would have no warrant effectively to order displacement of persons at the top of the community-based treatment waiting list by individuals lower down who commenced civil actions. The case is remanded for further consideration of the appropriate relief, given the range of the State’s facilities for the care of persons with diverse mental disabilities, and its obligation to administer services with an even hand. Pp. 18—22.

    Justice Stevens would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals, but because there are not five votes for that disposition, joined Justice Ginsburg’s judgment and Parts I, II, and III—A of her opinion. Pp. 1—2.

    Justice Kennedy concluded that the case must be remanded for a determination of the questions the Court poses and for a determination whether respondents can show a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 12132’s ban on discrimination based on the summary judgment materials on file or any further pleadings and materials properly allowed. On the ordinary interpretation and meaning of the term, one who alleges discrimination must show that she received differential treatment vis-à-vis members of a different group on the basis of a statutorily described characteristic. Thus, respondents could demonstrate discrimination by showing that Georgia (i) provides treatment to individuals suffering from medical problems of comparable seriousness, (ii) as a general matter, does so in the most integrated setting appropriate for the treatment of those problems (taking medical and other practical considerations into account), but (iii) without adequate justification, fails to do so for a group of mentally disabled persons (treating them instead in separate, locked institutional facilities). This inquiry would not be simple. Comparisons of different medical conditions and the corresponding treatment regimens might be difficult, as would be assessments of the degree of integration of various settings in which medical treatment is offered. Thus far, respondents have identified no class of similarly situated individuals, let alone shown them to have been given preferential treatment. Without additional information, the Court cannot address the issue in the way the statute demands. As a consequence, the partial summary judgment granted respondents ought not to be sustained. In addition, it was error in the earlier proceedings to restrict the relevance and force of the State’s evidence regarding the comparative costs of treatment. The State is entitled to wide discretion in adopting its own systems of cost analysis, and, if it chooses, to allocate health care resources based on fixed and overhead costs for whole institutions and programs. The lower courts should determine in the first instance whether a statutory violation is sufficiently alleged and supported in respondents’ summary judgment materials and, if not, whether they should be given leave to replead and to introduce evidence and argument along the lines suggested. Pp. 1—10.

    Ginsburg, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III—A, in which Stevens, O’Connor, Souter, and Breyer, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part III—B, in which O’Connor, Souter, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Kennedy, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Breyer, J., joined as to Part I. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia, J., joined.