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Americans with Disabilities Act/Schools and Universities

Learning disabilities under the ADA - no right to attend medical school - Betts v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia, 113 F.Supp.2d 970 (W.D.Va. 2000)

This is an important education and ADA case, and will likely be reviewed by the appeals court in due time. Plaintiff, Robert W. Betts, II, is a 1994 graduate of North Carolina Wesleyan College, where he majored in both Biology and Chemistry. Following college, he was accepted into the University of Virginia's School of Medicine pursuant to the Medical Academic Advancement Post-Baccalaureate Program ("MAAP"), designed for economically disadvantaged and minority students. MAAP guaranteed admission to the University's medical school to selected applicants who, inter alia, completed the program and maintained a minimum GPA of 2.75 per semester, received no grade below a C, and met the requirement of satisfactory performance to be judged by a faculty committee.  Betts began the program in the summer of 1995 and continued through the fall semester. However, he failed to meet the minimum requirements; he achieved only a 2.223 GPA and received a D in physics. Nonetheless, the faculty committee decided to permit Betts to proceed under a modified set of requirements. The faculty committee notified Betts that if he accepted tutoring and submitted to testing for a learning disability, he would be permitted to continue, pending reevaluation of his performance by the faculty committee at the end of the academic year.  He accepted these terms and was found to have a learning disability that could be accommodated by giving him more time on exams.  He was given double time on exams and his grades on the five exams taken with extra time were in the A and B range.  Despite this performance, his cumulative GPA was below 2.75 and the medical school declined to admit him. Plaintiff appealed this decision to the dean of the medical school and, after a hearing with the admission director and others, was granted another chance to enter the medical school on revised terms.  These terms required him to take additional courses with his accommodation and show that he could raise his cumulative GPA, and that he retake the Medical College Admission test, it is assumed with accommodation.  Rather than accepting these terms which would have delayed his admission, he filed this lawsuit.

Plaintiff initially filed several claims in addition to his ADA claim.  All but the ADA claim was disposed of in previous proceedings, and the ADA claim was remanded to the district court for further review.  Plaintiff's prima facie case requires him to show: 1) he has a disability; (2) he is an otherwise qualified individual; and (3) he was denied a benefit solely because of his disability.   He argues that the University considers him disabled, that is otherwise qualified because with the accommodation of extra time on exams he can make the necessary grades, and that thus he is being excluded because of his disability.  The court finds that while the University recognized that he has a learning disability, this is not enough.  He must also met the statutory showing under 42 U.S.C. s 12102(2)(A): an individual is considered disabled if the individual has a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual." The United States Supreme Court and the Circuit courts have used this provision is a series of cases to limit the scope of the ADA by differentiating between disabilities that affect everyday life and those that only affect certain job functions.  The courts have ruled that "learning" is a significant life activity, but being able to attend a specific advanced training program is not.  In this case, the court found that plaintiff was able to meet general educational requirements, illustrated by his ability to graduate from college with no accommodation.  Thus his learning disability did not interfere with the significant life activity of learning, only with the specific, narrow, aspiration of being a medical student.  The court dismissed plaintiff's remaining ADA claim.

This case is consistent with the United States Supreme Court's ADA employment cases, and with the general deference to academic institutions' right to set their own standards.  It is a difficult case in that the University's willingness to allow plaintiff to continue with the accommodation and try to raise his grades may have influenced the court's decision - plaintiff was not denied the right to enter medical school, only the chance to do it without a better demonstration that his accommodation was sufficient.

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