What Constitutes “Intentional Discrimination” Under the ADA?

by Amanda N. Catalano

A federal district judge recently answered a question still open in the Seventh Circuit, and that has split the other circuits: whether a plaintiff seeking compensatory damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or the Rehabilitation Act is required to show discriminatory animus to prevail, or whether mere deliberate indifference suffices.  Judge Jorge Alonso of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois decided upon the latter, holding that a plaintiff need only demonstrate deliberate indifference to survive the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

In Reed v. Illinois, --- F.Supp.3d ---, 2015 WL 4727754 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 10, 2015), the plaintiff, Linda Reed, sued the State of Illinois, the Circuit Court of Cook County, three Circuit Court judges, and the Circuit Court’s disability coordinator, alleging the defendants failed to accommodate her disabilities during her pro se litigation in two Circuit Court cases.  Reed alleged multiple physical and psychological disabilities which caused her to suffer involuntary movements, impaired speech, anxiety, and other symptoms that made her appear disruptive and prevented her from effectively participating in the Circuit Court hearings.  She requested various accommodations for her disabilities, including that the Circuit Court provide her with a computer, a note taker whose notes would become part of the official record, and an attorney.  The Circuit Court denied Reed’s requested accommodations, and Reed brought suit in federal court under the ADA and RA.

Addressing the state’s argument that Reed’s claim failed as a matter of law because Reed did not allege that the state intentionally discriminated against her, the district court first acknowledged that an ADA and/or RA plaintiff must show intentional discrimination as a prerequisite for compensatory damages.  But it went on to note that the Seventh Circuit had yet to decide whether intentional discrimination required a showing of discriminatory animus or mere deliberate indifference.  Reed argued the intentional discrimination requirement was satisfied by allegations of deliberate indifference.  The district court agreed.

The district court found the deliberate indifference standard to be “better suited” to the goals of the ADA and the RA than the discriminatory animus standard.  Quoting the Third Circuit’s opinion in Durrell v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 729 F.3d 248, 264 (3d Cir. 2013), the district court explained that discrimination against handicapped individuals is “most often [] the product not of invidious animus, but rather of thoughtlessness and indifference,” and that the ADA and RA are thus “targeted to address more subtle forms of discrimination than merely obviously exclusionary conduct” (internal quotations and citations omitted).  The district court thus held that an ADA and/or RA plaintiff need only allege deliberate indifference to proceed with her compensatory damages claims.

The district court’s opinion is in line with holdings in the Second, Third, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeals.  The First and Fifth Circuits, however, require a showing of discriminatory animus.  The question remains open in the Fourth and Sixth Circuits, though district courts in the Fourth Circuit have endorsed a deliberate indifference standard.  See, e.g., Paulone v. City of Frederick, 787 F.Supp.2d 360 (D. Md. 2011).