Olmstead v. L. C. (1999)

People with disabilities have the right to receive support in the community rather than in institutions when three conditions were met: (1) the treating medical professionals determine that a community setting was appropriate; (2) the person with a disability does not object to living in the community; and (3) the provision of services in the community is a reasonable accommodation.

Citation: 527 U.S. 581 (1999)
Date decided: Jun 22, 1999
Longer case name: Tommy Olmstead, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Human Resources, et al. , Petitioners v. L. C., by Jonathan Zimring, guardian ad litem and next friend, et al.
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Georgia
Topic(s):Disability: Discrimination, Enforcement, and Institutionalization
Lists:Important cases and zGreatest hits (future)
Attorneys:Michael H. Gottesman Atlanta Legal Aid Society argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Steven D. Caley, Susan C. Jamieson, and David A. Webster. Irving L. Gornstein argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Assistant Attorney General Lee, Deputy Solicitor General Underwood, Jessica Dunsay Silver, and Gregory B. Friel. Case beginning: Sue Jamieson, who was an attorney at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lois and then later added Elaine for supports to be provided in the community.
Others involved:Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Association on Mental Retardation et al. by Alan M. Wiseman, Timothy Y.K. Armstrong, and Ira A Burnim; for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Laurie Webb Daniel and Steven R. Shapiro; for the American… [unfinished in US Reports].
More info: Disability Integration Project at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. In partnership with LSC National Disability Rights Network: https://www.olmsteadrights.org

Case Importance

From olmsteadrights.org: “After Olmstead, the lawsuits that followed slowly defined the contours of the decision. The impact of Olmstead grew steadily but slowly with each court case. Most of the cases that reached written decisions were resolved in favor of individuals with disabilities but the cases were sporadic and often involved only small groups of individuals or individuals living in specific institutions. The gradual impact of Olmstead grew faster and more expansive after 2009 when the United States Justice Department made Olmstead a priority of its Civil Rights division and began to enforce the Supreme Court mandate in state after state. Still, fifteen years after Olmstead, no state could credibly make the case that it is fully in compliance with Olmstead…. Courts also found that Olmstead applied to individuals living in the community who were at risk of institutionalization. In an important decision, one federal appellate court (the 10th Circuit) held that the protections in Olmstead would be meaningless if men and women with disabilities “were required to segregate themselves by entering an institution before they could challenge an allegedly discriminatory law or policy that threatens to force them into segregated isolation.” In that case, the individuals were not in nursing facilities and stated that they would rather die than enter nursing facilities. The Court held that these men and women, who lived in the community, were still protected by Olmstead…. As Olmstead expands, it becomes possible to foresee a time when all Americans will have the supports they need regardless of the extent of any disability or impairment to live in the community and not in institutions and nursing facilities.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)


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.

From the opinion

Justice Ginsburg announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III-A, and an opinion with respect to Part III-B, in which O’Connor, Souter, and Breyer, JJ., joined.

This case concerns the proper construction of the anti-discrimination provision contained in the public services portion (Title II) of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 104 Stat. 337, 42 U. S. C. §12132. Specifically, we confront the question whether the proscription of discrimination may require placement of persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions. The answer, we hold, is a qualified yes. Such action is in order 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. In so ruling, we affirm the decision of the Eleventh Circuit in substantial part. We remand the case, however, for further consideration of the appropriate relief, given the range of facilities the State maintains for the care and treatment of persons with diverse mental disabilities, and its obligation to administer services with an even hand.

Last modified: 2023-01-20 03:48
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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