Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Second Circuit weighs in on ADA Amendments Act

The Court of Appeals has sent a prisoners' rights case back to the district court to clarify why the judge dismissed the case on summary judgment. In doing so, the Second Circuit (for the first time) provides an extended look at the recently-enacted Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, which took effect in 2009.

The case is Hilton v. Wright, decided on March 9. Hilton is an inmate with Hepatitis C virus. The state prison system had a treatment program for this, but defendant Dr. Wright disallowed treatment because Hilton had used drugs in the past and therefore needed to enroll in a substance abuse program. Hilton was ineligible for the program, however, because he would not be in prison long enough to complete the program. After Hilton complained to prison medical staff about the Hepatitis symptoms, Dr. Wright again considered whether to allow him to undergo antiviral treatment, but he again disallowed it, concluding that Hilton would not benefit from treatment. Hilton eventually got treatment after he filed the lawsuit.

The district court's grant of summary judgment was too cursory, the Second Circuit (Hall, Winter and Pooler) says, and for that reason the case is remanded for clarification. This is what the Court of Appeals wants to know:
 (1) why, given the evidence on the record, there is no genuine issue of material fact about whether Dr. Wright is entitled to qualified and immunity, and (2) why there is no genuine issue of material fact about whether the doctor's conduct violated the Eighth Amendment.
The Court of Appeals tips its hand on these issues, though, suggesting "there may well be genuine issues of material fact." While everyone agrees that Hilton had a serious medical condition (a necessary requirement for a deliberate indifference claim), the disputed issue is Dr. Wright's subjective recklessness in denying him the antiviral treatment. As the Court of Appeals frames the issue, "what did Dr. Wright know about how long Hilton's treatment had been delayed and what did Dr. Wright know about the likely medical consequences of such a delay?"

Hilton also sues under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court says that under the old ADA, Hilton probably does not have a "disability" under the law, because "to avail himself of the 'regarded as' prong of the definition of 'disability' [Hilton] needed to show that he was perceived as both 'impaired' and 'substantially limited in one or more major life activity.'" Thus, "under the old regime, Hilton could survive summary judgment on his ADA claim only if he could raise a genuine issue of material fact about whether Dr. Wright and/or DOCS regarded him personally as being substantially limited in a major life activity. The record is devoid of any such evidence."

The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) changes the legal standard, making it easier for plaintiffs to win their cases. Under the new law, which applies to Hilton's case, "An individual meets the requirement of 'being regarded as having such an impairment' if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this Act because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity." The difference between the new ADA and the old ADA is that to prevail under a "perceived as disabled" claim, the plaintiff need only show that the defendants believed he had an impairment, even if that impairment does not impair a major life activity.

Many ADA cases died on the vine under the old ADA when plaintiffs claimed they were discriminated against because of a perceived disability. The new ADA changes that. The parties in this case may not have been aware of the new standards. The Second Circuit overlooks that, probably because the law is the law whatever the parties think it is, or was. The Court writes:

Although both parties thought that Hilton needed to demonstrate that the defendants regarded him as being substantially limited in a major life activity, it is clear that he was only required to raise a genuine issue of material fact about whether Dr. Wright and/or DOCS regarded him as having a mental or physical impairment. Hilton was not required to present evidence of how or to what degree they believed the impairment affected him.
On remand, the district court has to review this claim along with the Eighth Amendment claim.

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