Monday, July 18, 2016

Court reinstates ADA claim in student suicide case

Student suicide cases are making their way through the courts, as lawyers are finding ways to argue that the schools should have done more to prevent them, usually caused by incessant peer-on-peer bullying. The Court of Appeals has yet to issue a definitive ruling on when the school is responsible for a student suicide, but this case tells us when a student has a disability under the Americans with Disability Act. It was that disability, the family claims, that caused the bullying.

The case is Spring v. Allegheny-Limestone Sch. Dist., a summary order decided on July14. According to the district court,

This action follows the tragic suicide of high school student Gregory Spring on June 17, 2013. As described in the Amended Complaint, Gregory was a special education student who suffered from disabilities including, but not limited to, Tourette’s Syndrome, ADHD, and Callosum Dysgensis. Plaintiffs allege that for an extended period of time during middle school and high school, Gregory “was subjected to numerous acts of fear and intimidation including, but not limited to, teasing, taunting, bullying, name calling, violence, offensive touching, hitting, interference with relationships, and public and private humiliation – conduct motivated in whole or part by his disabilities.” This conduct was “minimized, dismissed and ignored by the school district’s staff and officials, including the named Defendants.”
The constitutional claims were dismissed against the district, but the family also asserted a claim under the ADA. The district court said the student did not have a disability under federal law, but the Court of Appeals (Wesley, Livingston and Lynch) disagrees, noting that the ADA Amendments Act -- enacted in 2008 -- broadens the definition of "disability." Plaintiffs adequately alleged that the student's condition "susbtantially limited him in a major life activity."

We conclude that in holding that the proposed amendments did not allege a qualifying disability through specific facts about Gregory, the District Court clearly misconstrued the amended pleadings and misapplied the law. The proposed second amended complaint explicitly identified the effects of Gregory’s conditions on his major life activities of, inter alia, “speaking,” “learning,” “concentrating,” and “communicating,” identifying “a long‐standing record of suffering with a variety of motor and vocal tics” with a specific list of examples including “outbursts,” “involuntary knee slapping and eye blinking tics,” “repetitive utterance of foul language,” and “repetitive questioning.” It further alleged that the effects intensified “during periods of stress or unfamiliar settings or situations” and that his disabilities "substantially limited his ability to communicate” because “he was unable to recognize emotions communicated by tone of voice and misunderstanding of social cues.”

Taken together, the proposed amendments alleged sufficient facts to make plausible that the impact on Gregory’s learning ability, which also prompted a need for special education services, constituted a substantial limitation. On the facts alleged, therefore, we conclude that these proposed amendments would have sufficed to meet the requirements of a qualifying disability, particularly given the ADA Amendments Act of 2008’s significant relaxation of the standard for substantial limits on major life activities. 

No comments: