Monday, September 26, 2016

Disability discrimination case fails after 2d Circuit examines what is a "disability"

This case asks the Court of Appeals to find that plaintiffs may challenge a school district's special education program that places too many students into non‐credit bearing courses intended for students at risk of not meeting state performance standards. They sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, claiming the program has an unlawful disparate impact on disabled students. The Second Circuit says they do not have a case.

The case is BC v. Mt. Vernon School District, decided on September 16. This case alleges that this class was offered to children with a “disability” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(“IDEA”) at a greater rate than to children without such a disability. Since they sue under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act (the Federal disability statutes), the question is whether they are disabled under these laws. Although IDEA students are classified as having a disability, the question for the Court of Appeals is whether they are protected under the Federal disability statutes. The problem is that the IDEA and Federal disability statutes define "disability" differently. So the Court of Appeals (Livingston, Walker and Jacobs) has to resolve this issue of first impression:

Whether an individual with a “disability” under the IDEA categorically qualifies as an individual with a “disability” under the ADA and Section 504, such that Plaintiffs’ data relating to “child[ren] with a disability” under the IDEA can establish a prima facie case with respect to a claim predicated on the plaintiff having a “disability” under the ADA and Section 504.

Issues of first impression mean the Court of Appeals writes on a clean slate. So the Court starts from scratch. What does the IDEA say about "disability"? And how does the ADA and Rehabilitation Act define "disability"? The statutes are different. "The ADA and Section 504 define the term 'disability' differently than the IDEA does. The ADA defines 'disability' as a 'physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Section 504 expressly incorporates, with certain qualifications not applicable here, the ADA’s definition. By contrast, under the IDEA, a 'child with a disability' has one or more of an enumerated list of impairments requiring 'special education or related services.'” As the Federal disability laws define "disability" differently than the IDEA, the Court of Appeals says,

These are distinct legal standards. Although both define “disability” by reference to the effects of an individual’s impairment, the statutes provide for different inquiries. The ADA asks whether an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity, while the IDEA trains on whether an impairment necessitates “special education and related services.” Thus, a child might “need[] special education and related services” by reason of an impairment, id., even if that impairment does not “substantially limit[] . . . [a] major life activit[y]. Although many, if not most, IDEA‐eligible individuals may “also [be] handicapped under [the ADA],” we agree with the Tenth Circuit that Plaintiffs’ approach reads the ADA’s substantial limitation requirement, which we have consistently enforced, out of that statute, The ADA defines “major life activities” as, inter alia, “learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”

You get the picture. "Disability" carries different definitions under different federal laws. What it means for this case is that "an IDEA disability is not equivalent to a disability as cognizable under the ADA and Section 504. Plaintiffs, therefore, cannot rely solely on 'receipt of special education' to establish an ADA or Section 504 disability. Those seeking relief pursuant to ADA or Section 504 must come forward with 'additional evidence' — beyond simply their eligibility for IDEA coverage — showing their eligibility for the remedies afforded by the ADA and Section 504." Since "the record is devoid of any evidence as to whether the students included in the data qualify as disabled under the ADA or Section 504," this disparate impact case fails because an IDEA disability does not necessarily mean "disability"under the Federal disability statutes.

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