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U.S. Supreme Court

Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1 (1981)

Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman

No. 79-1404

Argued December 8, 1980

Decided April 20, 1981*

451 U.S. 1


The Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (Act) established a federal-state grant program whereby the Federal Government provides financial assistance to participating States to aid them in creating programs to care for and treat the developmentally disabled. The Act is voluntary, and the States are given the choice of complying with the conditions set forth in the Act or forgoing the benefits of federal funding. The "bill of rights" provision of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 6010(1) and(2), states that mentally retarded persons "have a right to appropriate treatment, services, and habilitation" in "the setting that is least restrictive of . . . personal liberty." Pennsylvania, a participating State, owns and operates Pennhurst State School and Hospital, a facility for the care and treatment of the mentally retarded. Respondent

Page 451 U. S. 2

Halderman, a retarded resident of Pennhurst, brought a class action in Federal District Court on behalf of herself and all other Pennhurst residents against Pennhurst and various officials responsible for its operation. It was alleged, inter alia, that conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane, and dangerous, and that such conditions denied the class members various specified constitutional and statutory rights, including rights under the Act, and, in addition to seeking injunctive and monetary relief, it was urged that Pennhurst be closed and that "community living arrangements" be established for its residents. The District Court found that certain of the claimed rights were violated, and granted the relief sought. The Court of Appeals substantially affirmed, but avoided the constitutional claims and instead held that § 6010 created substantive rights in favor of the mentally retarded, that mentally retarded persons have an implied cause of action to enforce those rights, and that the conditions at Pennhurst violated those rights. The court further found that Congress enacted the Act pursuant to both § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment and the spending power.

Held: Section 6010 does not create in favor of the mentally retarded any substantive rights to "appropriate treatment" in the "least restrictive" environment. Pp. 451 U. S. 11-32.

(a) The case for inferring congressional intent to create, pursuant to Congress' enacting power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, enforceable rights and obligations is at its weakest where, as here, the rights asserted imposed affirmative obligations on the States to fund certain services, since it may be assumed that Congress will not implicitly attempt to impose massive financial obligations on the States. Unlike legislation enacted under § 5, however, legislation enacted pursuant to the spending power is much in the nature of a contract; in return for federal funds, the States agree to comply with federally imposed conditions. The legitimacy of Congress' power to legislate under the spending power thus rests on whether the State voluntarily and knowingly accepts the terms of the "contract," but if Congress intends to impose a condition on the grant of federal moneys, it must do so unambiguously. Pp. 451 U. S. 15-18.

(b) Applying the above principles to these cases, this Court finds nothing in the Act or its legislative history to suggest that Congress intended to require the States to assume the high cost of providing "appropriate treatment" in the "least restrictive" environment to their mentally retarded citizens. There is virtually no support for the Court of Appeals' conclusion that Congress created rights and obligations pursuant to its power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. The Act nowhere states that that is its purpose, but, to the contrary, the

Page 451 U. S. 3

Act's language and structure demonstrate that it is a mere federal-state funding statute. Section 6010, when read in the context of other more specific provisions of the Act, does no more than express a congressional preference for certain kinds of treatment. Far from requiring the States to fund newly declared individual rights, the Act has a systematic focus, seeking to improve care to individuals by encouraging better state planning, coordination, and demonstration projects. Pp. 451 U. S. 18-22.

(c) There is no merit to the contention that Congress, acting pursuant to its spending power, conditioned the grant of federal funds on the State's agreeing to underwrite the obligations the Court of Appeals read into § 6010. As noted, the "findings" of § 6010, when viewed in the context of the more specific provisions of the Act, represent general statements of federal policy, not newly created legal duties. Moreover, the "plain language" of § 6010, as well as the administrative interpretation of the provision, also refutes such contention. Section 6010, in contrast to other provisions of the Act that clearly impose conditions, in no way suggests that the grant of federal funds is "conditioned" on a State's funding the rights described therein. Pp. 451 U. S. 22-24.

(d) The rule of statutory construction that Congress must express clearly its intent to impose conditions on the grant of federal funds, so that the States can knowingly decide whether or not to accept those funds, applies with greatest force where, as here, a State's potential obligations under the Act are largely indeterminate. The crucial inquiry here is not whether a State would knowingly undertake the obligation to provide "appropriate treatment" in the "least restrictive" setting, but whether Congress spoke so clearly that it can fairly be said that the State could make an informed choice. In this case, Congress fell well short of providing clear notice to the States that, by accepting funds under the Act, they would be obligated to comply with § 6010. Pp. 451 U. S. 24-25.

(e) A comparison of the general language of § 6010 with the conditions Congress explicitly imposed on the States under the Act demonstrates that Congress did not intend to place either absolute or conditional obligations on the States under § 6010. Pp. 451 U. S. 25-27.

(f) Questions not addressed by the Court of Appeals -- as to whether individual mentally retarded persons may bring suit to compel compliance with those conditions that are contained in the Act, the federal constitutional claims, and claims under another federal statute -- and issues as to whether state law imposed an obligation on Pennsylvania to provide treatment, are remanded for consideration or reconsideration, respectively, in light of the instant decision. Pp. 451 U. S. 27-31.

612 F.2d 84, reversed and remanded.

Page 451 U. S. 4

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post p. 451 U. S. 32. WHITE, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 451 U. S. 33.

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