In Pierce v. King, 918 F.Supp. 932 (E.D.N.C. 1996), aff’d, 131 F.3d 136 (4th Cir 1997), rev’d, 525 U.S. 802 (1998), a case vacated and remanded by the United States Supreme Court, Judge Boyle granted summary judgment to the defendant, holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was not applicable to a disabled state prisoner who was denied an accommodation that would have allowed him to participate in a work assignment for which inmates could receive “good time credit against the length of their sentence.” 918 F.Supp at 937.
According to Judge Boyle, Congress lacked authority under the Commerce Clause to enact an ADA applicable to state prisoners because state prisons do not have a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce. Id. at 939. Although Boyle acknowledged the great impact that state prisons do in fact have on interstate commerce, he opined that “the concept of substantiality is informed in part by traditional understandings of the proper roles of the federal government, the state governments, and the individual.” Id. Boyle allowed the interest that states have in managing their own prisons to trump the authority of Congress to legislate under the Commerce Clause:
Whatever the effects of prison labor upon interstate commerce might be, they are not sufficiently substantial . . . and are wholly insubstantial within the context of our nation’s federalist traditions, to legitimate applications of labor laws such as the ADA to state prisons.
Id. at 940.
In addition, Boyle stated that he believed Congress had no authority under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to apply the ADA to states at all. Id. According to Judge Boyle, “[a]lthough Congress invoked the power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment in passing the ADA, it is unclear what right, if any, is vindicated by the Act.” Id. Boyle held that because the ADA seeks what he called “special treatment” for people with disabilities, rather than mere “equal treatment,” the Fourteenth Amendment provides no authority to Congress for abrogating states’ sovereign immunity:
Boyle went on to claim that “[e]ven if some positive rights to receive entitlement benefits under the ADA are rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment – and this Court very much doubts this – the requisite employment and public access relationships do not exist between prisoners and prisons, nor can such rights be practically extended within prison walls” Id. In addition, Boyle stated “it is impossible for prisoners to complain that they have suffered any form of employment discrimination proscribed by the ADA” because courts have consistently refused to find an employer-employee relationship between prisons and prisoners due to the fact that their primary relationship is not one of employment, but one of incarceration. Id.
Though the Fourth Circuit upheld Boyle’s opinion, the decision was subsequently vacated and remanded by the United States Supreme Court in light of the Court’s then-recent decision in a strikingly similar case, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206 (1998). The plaintiff in Yeskey, a disabled prisoner, had been sentenced to 18 to 36 months in prison, but was eligible to participate instead in a “Motivational Boot Camp” for first-time offenders, successful completion of which would have led to his parole in just six months. The Department of Corrections, however, denied Yeskey participation on the grounds that the program was not suitable for persons with disabilities. Because the question had not been addressed by either of the lower courts that had considered Yeskey, the Court declined to settle the question of whether the ADA is a valid exercise of congressional power pursuant to Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. Id. at 212. The 9-0 opinion authored by Justice Scalia did hold, however, that “the plain text of Title II of the ADA unambiguously extends to state prison inmates” and that, as a result, the plaintiff was entitled to accommodations that would enable him to participate in the Boot Camp. Id. at 213.