by Eliz­a­beth Schwartz*

Lit­i­gants may bring claims alleg­ing dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion under the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act of 1990 (“ADA”), which address­es dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion by state and local gov­ern­ments or in places of pub­lic accom­mo­da­tion, and Sec­tion 504 of the Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Act of 1974 (“Sec­tion 504”), which address­es dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion by fed­er­al grantees.1 Regard­ed as the “twin pil­lars of fed­er­al dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion law,”2 these statutes pro­vide indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties with a range of pro­tec­tions,3 includ­ing in the areas of edu­ca­tion, employ­ment, trans­porta­tion, pub­lic accom­mo­da­tions, and access to state and local gov­ern­ment ser­vices.4

To suc­ceed on a claim, a plain­tiff must allege one of three pos­si­ble the­o­ries of dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion: dis­parate treat­ment (also referred to as dis­parate intent), dis­parate impact, or fail­ure to make rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tions.5 Claims of dis­parate treat­ment or fail­ure to make rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tions are well estab­lished in case law, but dis­parate impact claims remain an unset­tled area of law.6 Specif­i­cal­ly, cir­cuit courts remain divid­ed about whether dis­parate impact claims are cog­niz­able under Title II of the ADA or Sec­tion 504.7 This Con­tri­bu­tion argues that dis­parate impact claims must be cog­niz­able under either statute to be con­sis­tent with Supreme Court prece­dent and the statu­to­ry pur­pose and scheme of both statutes.

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In Doe v. Blue­Cross BlueShield of Ten­nessee, Inc., the Sixth Cir­cuit con­sid­ered a claim of dis­parate-impact dis­crim­i­na­tion based on Blue­Cross BlueShield’s require­ment that the plain­tiff receive his HIV med­ica­tion by mail, rather than through a local phar­ma­cy.8 The plain­tiff alleged that this pol­i­cy had a greater impact on him and oth­er indi­vid­u­als with HIV than it would for indi­vid­u­als with­out a dis­abil­i­ty.9 The court found for the defen­dant and held in part that dis­parate impact claims are not cog­niz­able under Sec­tion 504.10 How­ev­er, the Sixth Cir­cuit premised its deci­sion on a mis­char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the Supreme Court’s opin­ion in Alexan­der v. Choate by assert­ing that it was an open ques­tion of law whether dis­parate impact claims, on the whole, can be cog­niz­able, and that the court was “now resolv[ing] what Choate did not.”11 A close read­ing of Choate reveals this rep­re­sen­ta­tion to be inac­cu­rate.12

In Choate, the plain­tiff alleged that a change in the Ten­nessee Med­ic­aid pro­gram would affect indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties more sig­nif­i­cant­ly than the rest of the pop­u­la­tion, con­sti­tut­ing a vio­la­tion of Sec­tion 504 under a dis­parate-impact the­o­ry of dis­crim­i­na­tion.13 Writ­ing for the major­i­ty, Jus­tice Marshall’s opin­ion nav­i­gat­ed a mid­dle course: “While we reject the bound­less notion that all dis­parate-impact show­ings con­sti­tute pri­ma facie cas­es under § 504, we assume with­out decid­ing that § 504 reach­es at least some con­duct that has an unjus­ti­fi­able dis­parate impact upon the hand­i­capped.”14 Every dis­parate impact claim might not be cog­niz­able under Sec­tion 504, but some must be, lest “one of [the government’s] goals so over­shad­ows the oth­er as to eclipse it.”15 While the plaintiff’s par­tic­u­lar harm was found to be not cog­niz­able in Choate, the Court upheld the ana­lyt­i­cal frame­work first put forth in South­east­ern Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege v. Davis: that Sec­tion 504 guar­an­tees that indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties be pro­vid­ed mean­ing­ful access to a gov­ern­men­tal ben­e­fit and rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tions might be required to ensure this access.16

Thus, the ques­tion left open after Choate is not whether Sec­tion 504 and the lat­er-enact­ed ADA pro­hib­it dis­parate-impact dis­crim­i­na­tion, but where the out­er bound­aries for such claims should be drawn. Blue­Cross BlueShield ignores the nuances of Choate’s hold­ing and accord­ing­ly reach­es the wrong result.

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In con­trast, the Third and Ninth Cir­cuits have upheld the right of indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties to bring dis­parate-impact dis­crim­i­na­tion claims, rely­ing upon the hold­ing in Choate.

In Payan v. Los Ange­les Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege Dis­trict, the plain­tiffs alleged that a pub­lic com­mu­ni­ty college’s poli­cies had a dis­parate impact on indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties.17 The Ninth Cir­cuit affirmed a pri­vate right of action for dis­parate-impact claims, cit­ing to Choate and oth­er Ninth Cir­cuit prece­dent that demon­strate the “his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ing that Sec­tion 504 and the ADA were specif­i­cal­ly intend­ed to address both inten­tion­al dis­crim­i­na­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion caused by ‘thought­less indif­fer­ence.’”18

Like­wise, in Doe 1 v. Perkiomen Val­ley School Dis­trict, the Third Cir­cuit con­sid­ered a case in which a class of stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties filed a dis­parate-impact claim after their school dis­trict rescind­ed a uni­ver­sal indoor mask­ing pol­i­cy dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic.19 The plain­tiffs alleged that retract­ing the mask man­date would exclude chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties from their pub­lic schools.20 In response, the defen­dants argued for the court to embrace the Sixth Circuit’s approach in Doe v. Blue­Cross BlueShield of Ten­nessee, Inc. and hold that Sec­tion 504 and the ADA do not pro­hib­it dis­parate-impact dis­crim­i­na­tion.21 The Third Cir­cuit reject­ed the defendant’s argu­ment, not­ing that fol­low­ing the Sixth Cir­cuit “would be incon­sis­tent with Supreme Court and Third Cir­cuit prece­dent.”22 Instead, the court applied the frame­work pre­sent­ed in Choate to eval­u­ate a facial­ly neu­tral pol­i­cy and looked to whether the pol­i­cy denied mean­ing­ful access and whether rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tions could be made.23

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Allow­ing dis­parate-impact claims under the ADA and Sec­tion 504 is con­sis­tent with the leg­isla­tive intent and the broad­er statu­to­ry scheme of the statutes. As not­ed in Choate, the leg­is­la­tors who enact­ed Sec­tion 504 con­sid­ered dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion to typ­i­cal­ly be the effect of neglect or thought­less­ness, rather than inten­tion­al wrong­do­ing.24 Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Vanik, who intro­duced an ear­li­er ver­sion of the Act in the House, posi­tioned his bill as solv­ing one of the country’s “shame­ful over­sights” and described indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties as often “shunt­ed aside, hid­den and ignored.”25 Sen­a­tor Williams, the chair­man of the Labor and Pub­lic Wel­fare Com­mit­tee that report­ed out Sec­tion 504, stat­ed that “the neglect of the hand­i­capped is a stain on our col­lec­tive con­science.”26 The prob­lem that the Act sought to solve was framed as one of unin­ten­tion­al neglect, rather than pur­pose­ful mal­ice, and the leg­isla­tive intent of the bill extend­ed to the kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion that results from a facial­ly neu­tral pol­i­cy with dis­parate effects.27

Fur­ther, an explic­it pur­pose of Sec­tion 504 was to pro­hib­it archi­tec­tur­al bar­ri­ers, a spe­cif­ic form of unin­ten­tion­al dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion con­cern­ing build­ing design, in order to increase access for indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties.28 The Sen­ate Com­mit­tee on Labor and Pub­lic Wel­fare specif­i­cal­ly not­ed the “enor­mous phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers to the mobil­i­ty of the hand­i­capped indi­vid­ual.”29 If inten­tion­al dis­crim­i­na­tion was all that the Act addressed, it would have no effect on this cen­tral issue because these bar­ri­ers at issue were clear­ly not erect­ed with the pur­pose of exclud­ing or dis­crim­i­nat­ing.30 Build­ings must be made acces­si­ble to indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties, even when the archi­tect did not intend to exclude them.31 Thus, it is con­sis­tent with the over­ar­ch­ing statu­to­ry scheme to broad­ly pro­hib­it unin­ten­tion­al dis­parate-impact discrimination.

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In Choate, the Supreme Court rea­soned that dis­parate impact claims were essen­tial to real­iz­ing the stat­ed goals of fed­er­al dis­abil­i­ty statutes. Although the Court did not issue a broad state­ment rec­og­niz­ing all dis­parate-impact claims, it applied a bal­anc­ing test to deter­mine whether mean­ing­ful access had been pro­vid­ed and whether there exist­ed rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tions that should have been made. The Sixth Cir­cuit could have denied the Blue­Cross BlueShield plaintiff’s claim with­in this frame­work, but instead chose to decide the case out­side the bound­aries of Supreme Court prece­dent and the well-estab­lished leg­isla­tive intent. Courts that have yet to con­sid­er this ques­tion should fol­low the approach­es adopt­ed by the Third and Ninth Cir­cuits, in accor­dance with the Supreme Court and the core pur­pose of the leg­is­la­tion, and hold that dis­parate impact claims are cog­niz­able under the ADA and Sec­tion 504.


* Eliz­a­beth Schwartz is a J.D. Can­di­date (2023) at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law. This Con­tri­bu­tion does not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the author.

1. Equal Oppor­tu­ni­ty for Indi­vid­u­als with Dis­abil­i­ties, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101–12213; Voca­tion­al Reha­bil­i­ta­tion and Oth­er Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Ser­vices, 29 U.S.C. §§ 701–797b.

2. Berardel­li v. Allied Servs. Inst. of Rehab. Med., 900 F.3d 104, 109–10 (3d Cir. 2018) (“Both statutes secure the rights of indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties to inde­pen­dence and full inclu­sion in Amer­i­can society . . . .”).

3. Courts have ana­lyzed Sec­tion 504 and the ADA coex­ten­sive­ly because “there is no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in the analy­sis of rights and oblig­a­tions cre­at­ed by the two Acts.” Payan v. Los Ange­les Cmty. Coll. Dist., 11 F.4th 729, 737 (9th Cir. 2021) (quot­ing K.M. ex rel. Bright v. Tustin Uni­fied Sch. Dist., 725 F.3d 1088, 1098 (9th Cir. 2013)) (hold­ing that a pri­vate right of action exists to enforce dis­parate-impact dis­crim­i­na­tion under Title II of the ADA and Sec­tion 504).

4. 42 U.S.C. § 12101; 29 U.S.C. § 701.

5. Tardif v. City of New York, 991 F.3d 394, 403–04 (2d Cir. 2021) (detail­ing the three the­o­ries for estab­lish­ing lia­bil­i­ty under Title II of the ADA, which pro­hibits dis­crim­i­na­tion against indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties in pub­lic ser­vices, pro­grams, and activ­i­ties); see also 42 U.S.C. § 12132 (pro­scrib­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in pub­lic ser­vices, pro­grams, and activities).

6. E.g., Doe v. Blue­Cross BlueShield of Ten­nessee, Inc., 926 F.3d 235, 241 (6th Cir. 2019) (“[Dis­parate impact claims] raise an open ques­tion about the scope of the Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Act . . . .”); see also Mark C. Weber, Acci­den­tal­ly On Pur­pose: Intent In Dis­abil­i­ty Dis­crim­i­na­tion Laws, 56 Bos. Coll. L. Rev. 1417, 1419–20 (2015) (dis­cussing the height­ened con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing dis­parate impact claims in dis­crim­i­na­tion law).

7. Com­pare Payan, 11 F.4th at 734 and Doe 1 v. Perkiomen Val­ley Sch. Dist., 585 F. Supp. 3d 668, 688 (E.D. Pa. 2022) (hold­ing that dis­parate impact claims are cog­niz­able under Title II of the ADA), with Blue­Cross BlueShield, 926 F.3d at 241 (hold­ing that Sec­tion 504 does not pro­hib­it dis­parate-impact discrimination).

8. Doe v. Blue­Cross BlueShield of Ten­nessee, Inc., 926 F.3d 235, 237 (6th Cir. 2019).

9. Id. at 238. It was not dis­put­ed whether HIV-pos­i­tive sta­tus qual­i­fied as a dis­abil­i­ty under the Act. See id. at 241 (“We take . . . for grant­ed . . . that Doe’s HIV-pos­i­tive sta­tus counts as a dis­abil­i­ty under the Act . . . .”).

10. Id. at 241.

11. Id.; cf. Alexan­der v. Choate, 469 U.S. 287, 299 (1985) (acknowl­edg­ing that at least some dis­parate-impact claims are cog­niz­able under Sec­tion 504).

12. Choate, 469 U.S. at 299.

13. Id. at 290–91. Notably, the suit occurred before the ADA was enact­ed, so the plain­tiff only filed claims under Sec­tion 504, but the statutes have been applied iden­ti­cal­ly by courts. See supra note 3.

14. Id. at 299 (empha­sis added).

15. Id.

16. Id. at 301; see also South­east­ern Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege v. Davis, 442 U.S. 397, 412–13 (1979) (hold­ing that refus­ing to accom­mo­date the needs of a dis­abled per­son may amount to discrimination).

17. Payan v. Los Ange­les Cmty. Coll. Dist., 11 F.4th 729, 733 (9th Cir. 2021).

18. Id. at 737 (quot­ing Alexan­der v. Choate, 469 U.S. 287, 295 (1985)).

19. Doe 1 v. Perkiomen Val­ley Sch. Dist., 585 F. Supp. 3d 668, 677–79 (E.D. Pa. 2022).

20. Id. at 679.

21. Id. at 687.

22. Id.

23. Id. at 687–89.

24. Alexan­der v. Choate, 469 U.S. 287, 295 (1985).

25. 117 Cong. Rec. 45974 (1971). See also Helen L. v. DiDario, 46 F.3d 325, 335 (3d Cir. 1995) (not­ing that “[b]ecause the ADA evolved from an attempt to rem­e­dy the effects of ‘benign neglect’ result­ing from the ‘invis­i­bil­i­ty’ of the dis­abled, Con­gress could not have intend­ed to lim­it the Act’s pro­tec­tions and pro­hi­bi­tions to cir­cum­stances involv­ing delib­er­ate discrimination”).

26. 118 Cong. Rec. 3320 (1972) (empha­sis added).

27. See DiDario, 46 F.3d at 335 (“[M]uch of the con­duct that Con­gress sought to alter in pass­ing the Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Act [and the ADA] would be dif­fi­cult if not impos­si­ble to reach were the Act[s] con­strued to pro­scribe only con­duct fueled by a dis­crim­i­na­to­ry intent.”) (quot­ing Choate, 469 U.S. at 296–97).

28. See S. Rep. No. 93–318, at 2125 (1973) (char­ac­ter­iz­ing “the elim­i­na­tion of archi­tec­tur­al and trans­porta­tion bar­ri­ers” as a goal of the act).

29. Id. at 2122.

30. See Choate, 469 U.S. at 296 (“Fed­er­al agen­cies and com­men­ta­tors . . . have found that dis­crim­i­na­tion against the hand­i­capped is pri­mar­i­ly the result of apa­thet­ic atti­tudes rather than affir­ma­tive animus.”).

31. See id. at 297 (“[E]limination of archi­tec­tur­al bar­ri­ers was one of the cen­tral aims of the Act . . . yet such bar­ri­ers were clear­ly not erect­ed with the aim or intent of exclud­ing the handicapped.”).