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Americans with Disabilities Act

Case Compliments of Versuslaw

Taking a Professional Licensing Exam as a Significant Life Activity under the ADA - Bartlett v. New York State Bd. of Law Examiners, 226 F.3d 69 (2nd Cir.(N.Y.) 2000)

This is a review after remand of Bartlett v. New York State Bd. of Law Examiners, 156 F.3d 321 (2nd Cir.(N.Y.) 1998), which was discussed in a previous LMP.  Plaintiff Bartlett has been diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning impairment. She requested accommodation on the New York bar exam, which defendants did not want to grant.  Plaintiff sued under the ADA and defendants responded that while she impaired, she was not disabled under the ADA because her dyslexia did not significantly limit a major life activity.  The District Court found that plaintiff was disabled in the major work activity of working and ruled that defendants had to provide an accommodation for her.  See Bartlett v. New York State Bd. of Law Exam'rs, 970 F.Supp. 1094 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (Bartlett I); see also Bartlett v. New York State Bd. of Law Exam'rs, 2 F.Supp.2d 388 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (Bartlett II) (denying motion for post-judgment relief).  Defendants appealed and the Circuit Court affirmed in part and vacated in part, finding: ". . . that Bartlett was disabled, but on different grounds. In particular, in determining whether Bartlett was substantially limited with respect to reading, we held that the district court should not have taken into account Bartlett's ability to 'self-accommodate,' stating that Bartlett's 'history of self-accommodations, while allowing her to achieve roughly average reading skills (on some measures) when compared to the general population, do not take her outside of the protective provisions of the ADA.'  Because we concluded that Bartlett was substantially limited with respect to reading, we did not consider whether she also was substantially limited with respect to working. We vacated and remanded solely as to the proper measure of compensatory damages."

 

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and vacated and remanded in light of Sutton v. United Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999), Murphy v. United Parcel Serv., 527 U.S. 516 (1999), and Albertson's, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, 527 U.S. 555 (1999).  On remand, the Circuit Court reversed its earlier criticism of the District Court's handing of the self-accommodation, but still found that it applied the wrong legal standard when it found that Bartlett was not substantially limited with respect to reading because she has "roughly average reading skills (on some measures) when compared to the general population." The court held that it is not enough that Bartlett has average skills on "some" measures if her skills are below average on other measures to an extent that her ability to read is substantially limited and remanded for the district court to determine whether Bartlett is substantially limited in the major life activity of reading by her slow reading speed, or by any other "conditions, manner, or duration" that limits her reading "in comparison to most people."  The Court also disagreed with the district court's finding that "[i]f plaintiff's disability prevents her from competing on a level playing field with other bar examination applicants, then her disability has implicated the major life activity of working." The Court found that it is not enough for a plaintiff to prove that an impairment "implicates" a major life activity -- she is required to prove that the impairment "substantially limits" that activity. In this case, it was not been shown that Bartlett's inability to practice law results from her reading impairment, rather than from other factors that might prevent her from passing the bar. Therefore the Court remanded for the District Court to determine, if necessary, whether it is Bartlett's impairment, rather than factors such as her education, experience or innate ability, that "substantially limits" her ability to work.

 

The case is well reasoned and carefully reviews the precedent.  There is a strong dissent that questions whether taking the bar exam is the same as working.  Plaintiff has been able to get through college and law school and clearly can work on many jobs.  The dissent argues that, consistent with the United States Supreme Court precedent, plaintiff has only shown that she is unsuited for a specific class of jobs, not for the general activity of working.  This is a very important case for professional licensing for lawyers and physicians and will probably continue to be reviewed by the courts.

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