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Friday, September 16, 2016

A disability is not a disability is not a disability 

The question presented in this case is whether being disabled for purposes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") categorically qualifies and individual as having a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ("Section 504").

The plaintiffs in B.C. v. Mount Vernon School Dist. are high school students with disabilities under IDEA (actually the plaintiffs were the students' parents, but it amounts to the same thing).  Their schools had placed them in AIS remedial classes for which academic credit was not given.  As a result at the end of the school year, they did not have enough credits to graduate to the next grade.  Both students ultimately graduated from high school.

The plaintiffs brought suit in federal court under the ADA and Section 504, claiming that the Mount Vernon School District's policy of scheduling the AIS classes during school hours disparately impacted students with disabilities.  The school district moved for summary judgment, asserting that the plaintiffs should have exhausted their claims through the administrative process under the IDEA before raising these claims in federal court.  The plaintiffs claimed that they were excused from the exhaustion requirement of IDEA because their claims challenged a district-wide policy of discrimination and exhausting administrative remedies with respect to the district's framework and procedures would have been futile.

The District Court accepted the plaintiffs argument that they fall within the "futility" exception to the IDEA exhaustion requirement because they were challenging a district-wide policy.

The District Court granted the district's motion for summary judgment, stating that the plaintiffs' disparate impact evidence only showed the the district's policy only had a disparate impact on students with a disability under IDEA, not under ADA and Section 504, which defines "disability" differently.

The Second Circuit affirmed.  The plaintiffs statistical evidence only showed that district's policy only had a disparate impact on individuals with a disability under IDEA.  It is only if , as a matter of law, a child with a disability under the IDEA necessarily qualifies as an individual with a disability under ADA or Section 504.

ADA and Section 504 define  "disability" as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities."  By contrast, under IDEA, a "child with a disability" has one or more of an enumerated list of impairments requiring "special education or related service."  Hence, a student could have a disability that requires special education or related services without it substantially limiting one or more major life activities.  The Court held that the plaintiffs' position, in effect, read the ADA's substantial limitation requirement out of the statute.  The Court, while acknowledging that many students who qualify for special education or related services under IDEA might also qualify under ADA and Section 504, that is not always the case.  Other circuits have similarly held.

The Second Circuit's decision can be found here.

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