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American Council of the Blind v. Snow

March 31, 2004


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James Robertson United States District Judge


Plaintiffs, blind and visually impaired individuals and the American Council for the Blind, an organization that advocates for the blind and visually impaired, allege in this suit that the Department of Treasury's failure to design and issue paper currency that is readily distinguishable to blind and visually impaired individuals violates section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment and an order requiring the defendants to implement specific design changes to the currency. I denied an early defense motion for summary judgment because the record lacked factual development. Defendants now move to dismiss, on the grounds: (1) that the design of U.S. currency is entrusted by statute to the discretion of the Department of the Treasury and not subject to the Rehabilitation Act; (2) that existing currency does not discriminate against the visually impaired; and (3) that plaintiffs' have not exhausted their administrative remedies. In the alternative, defendants argue (a) that the agency should retain discretion over any redesign of the currency; (b) that redesign of the one-dollar bill is expressly prohibited by Congress; and (c) that the Treasurer of the United States should be dismissed as a defendant.


1. The Secretary's discretion does not preclude application of the Rehabilitation Act.

Defendants assert that the Rehabilitation Act cannot be applied to the design of U.S. currency because the form of the currency is committed to the sole discretion of the Secretary of the Treasury (the Secretary). The Federal Reserve Act provides:

In order to furnish suitable notes for circulation as Federal reserve notes, the Secretary of the Treasury shall cause plates and dies to be engraved in the best manner to guard against counterfeits and fraudulent alterations, and shall have printed therefrom and numbered such quantities of such notes of the denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000 as may be required to supply the Federal Reserve banks. Such notes shall be in form and tenor as directed by the Secretary of the Treasury under the provisions of this chapter and shall bear the distinctive numbers of the several Federal reserve banks through which they are issued.

12 U.S.C. § 418 (emphasis added). Defendants argue, essentially, that this specific provision trumps the more general language of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which provides that:

No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 705(20) of this title, shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.

29 U.S.C. § 794.

To determine whether the specific provisions of the Federal Reserve Act preclude application of section 504, I must first determine whether the statutes are in conflict with one another. Edmunds v. United States, 520 U.S. 651, 659 (1997) ("Ordinarily, where a specific provision conflicts with a general one, the specific governs."). The cases defendants offer to support their argument all involve specific provisions that actually conflict with more general statutes. See, e.g., Stewart v. Smith, 673 F.2d 485, 492 (D.C. Cir. 1982); Farmer v. Employment Sec. Comm'n of N.C., 4 F.3d 1274, 1284 (4th Cir. 1993); Knutzen v. Eben Ezer Lutheran Hous. Ctr., 815 F.2d 1343 (10th Cir. 1987). But, of course, there is no obvious conflict between the Secretary's duty to design the currency "in the best manner to guard against counterfeits and fraudulent alterations" and his obligations under the Rehabilitation Act. In fact, plaintiffs advance a persuasive argument to the contrary. They suggest that creating bills in varying sizes would eliminate the counterfeiting practice of bleaching the ink off smaller denomination bills and printing higher denomination markings onto the currency paper. This, however, is a matter to be heard and decided on the merits.

2. Plaintiffs have stated a claim under the Rehabilitation Act.

To state a claim under section 504, a plaintiff must (1) be an individual with a disability (2) who is "otherwise qualified" for participation in a program or activity (3) of an Executive agency, and who is (4) "denied the benefits of" or "subjected to discrimination under" that program or activity. 29 U.S.C. § 794. The Secretary's motion, addressing only the fourth element, asserts that the form of the existing currency neither denies plaintiffs the benefit of currency-based transactions nor subjects them to discrimination.

Whether the form of U.S. currency denies plaintiffs the benefits of currency-based transactions or subjects them to discrimination within the meaning of section 504 turns on whether plaintiffs have been afforded "meaningful access" to currency based transactions.*fn1 Alexander v. Choate, 469 U.S. 287, 301 (1985). When applying this standard, I must balance "the need to give effect to the statutory objectives and the desire to keep [section] 504 within manageable bounds." Id. at 299. Although an agency must provide meaningful access to its programs, id. at 301, it is not required to fundamentally alter the nature of the programs in order to do so, Southeastern Community College v. Davis, 442 U.S. 397, 410 (1979)(section 504 did not require nursing school to make major adjustments to program to accommodate prospective student with severe hearing impairment). Defendants assert that the plaintiffs already benefit from "meaningful access" to currency-based transactions and that the "optimal access" or "specially-designed access" sought by plaintiffs is not mandated by the Rehabilitation Act. It is true that section 504 does not guarantee equal access:

Section 504 seeks to assure evenhanded treatment and the opportunity for handicapped individuals to participate in and benefit from programs receiving federal assistance. The Act does not, however, guarantee the handicapped equal results from the provision of state Medicaid, ...

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