Lane v. Peña

LOCATION: 10th Judicial Circuit Court - Jefferson

DOCKET NO.: 95-365
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 518 US 187 (1996)
ARGUED: Apr 15, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 20, 1996

Beth S. Brinkmann - Argued the cause for the respondent
Walter A. Smith, Jr. - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

The Department of Transportation expelled Lane, a student, from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy because he was diagnosed with diabetes. Lane sued the Department of Transportation alleging that his termination violated section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which barred "any program or activity under any executive agency" from discriminating on the basis of disability. The district court reinstated Lane, but refused to award damages because the federal government's sovereign immunity had not been waived by Congress. The appeals court affirmed the district court decision.


Did Congress waive the federal government's sovereign immunity against monetary damages with respect to section 504(a) of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act?

Media for Lane v. Peña

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 15, 1996 in Lane v. Peña

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 95-365... the spectators are admonished to remain silent until you get outside the courtroom.

the Court remains in session.

We'll hear argument next in Number 95-365, James Griffin Lane v. Federico Pena.

Mr. Smith, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Walter A. Smith, Jr.:

Thank you.

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court:

The question in this case is whether Congress intended that Federal agencies who discriminate against disabled people in violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act are to be subject to damages for those violations.

It's undisputed in this case that in fact the Government did violate section 504.

It's also undisputed that Petitioner Griff Lane was caused significant damages by that violation.

In fact, the paper before the Court contained the parties' stipulation that his damages were some $75,000--

William H. Rehnquist:

I see the petitioner's name, Mr. Smith, is James Griffin Lane.

When you say Griff Lane, is that how you refer to him?

Walter A. Smith, Jr.:

--Yes, Your Honor.

That's the name I've always called him.


The $75,000 to Mr. Lane include his out of pocket expenses and his lost earnings for the 2 years he was improperly excluded from the Merchant Marine Academy.

Now, we understand that in deciding whether or not Mr. Lane is going to be entitled to these damages, we will have to meet the strict burden that this Court's sovereign immunity cases have placed on us.

We must show that in fact it was clear in the statute that Congress intended these damages to be made available.

We believe it is clear in the statute.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Smith, may I refer you to the statute, section 505(a)(2), dealing explicitly with remedies?

There is a section, is there not, of the statute that deals with remedies?

Walter A. Smith, Jr.:

Yes, Your Honor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And it says the remedies set forth in title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shall be available to any person aggrieved under the statute, and the civil title VI in includes compensatory damages, I believe, is that right?

Walter A. Smith, Jr.:

Yes, Your Honor, that is correct.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And then it goes on and it says, any person aggrieved by any act or failure to act by any recipient of Federal assistance, or Federal provider of such assistance.

Now, who is a Federal provider?

Is the Department of Transportation a Federal provider of assistance?

Walter A. Smith, Jr.:

Yes, Your Honor, it is, and we believe--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, if it is, then does the statute cover it and you don't have to go through all this implication?

Walter A. Smith, Jr.:

--Well, as we argued in our reply brief, we believe even if you read 505(a)(2) alone, in isolation, because the Department of Transportation is a Federal provider--