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Tenn. AG: No state damages due for inaccessible courts

/ Source: The Associated Press

Disabled Tennesseans whose lawsuit prompted a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision about access to courts are not entitled to damages from the state, Attorney General Paul Summers said in a court filing Tuesday.

The court filing by S. Elizabeth Martin, senior counsel in the state attorney general's antitrust division, also asked the court to deny class-action status requested by attorneys for six plaintiffs.

Martin answered an amended plaintiffs' complaint in advance of a Thursday status conference before U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell in Nashville.

Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, said attorneys would not comment about the filing, which also said a judge at the Polk County Courthouse offered to relocate an upstairs hearing for plaintiff George Lane to a ground level room.

The judge offered Lane "several reasonable accommodations, which were refused," Martin wrote.

The case began when Lane tried to sue the state of Tennessee for up to $100,000 for what he claimed was humiliating treatment that violated the ADA.

Lane crawled up two flights of steps at the Polk County Courthouse in Benton to face charges in a 1996 traffic case. He was arrested for failing to appear in court when he refused to either crawl or be carried for a second court appearance.

Courthouse employees also have said he refused offers of help.

One day out of prison when the Supreme Court released its ruling May 17, Lane became an unlikely standard-bearer for disabled Americans.

Lane, who now uses an artificial leg to walk, has a criminal record that includes more than 30 arrests on charges such as drunken driving, drugs and traffic offenses. He was driving on the wrong side of the road when he was maimed in a car accident.

Lane's attorney, William Brown of Cleveland, could not be reached for comment Tuesday and other plaintiffs' attorneys said they had not seen the state's filing.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, upheld the rights of disabled people under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, saying it gives citizens the right to sue if a state fails to live up to the law's requirements.

In a list of additional responses, Martin wrote that at least part of the amended complaint is barred by the statute of limitations and the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides states some immunity.

"The relief plaintiffs seek would cause the state of Tennessee undue hardship," Martin wrote.

State attorneys have contended Lane's constitutional rights were not violated and that he had no right to take the state to court.

Gov. Phil Bredesen said in response to the high court decision last month that the state has an obvious "obligation to make state facilities, including state courthouses, accessible to handicapped persons. We'll just have to take the results of this and figure out what it is we have to do to comply."

The case is Tennessee v. Lane, 02-1667.


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