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2nd Circuit Revives ADA Case, Treats Student Like Employee

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on October 07, 2015 2:36 PM

The Second Circuit revived a discrimination case that was originally brought in August of 2014 in which the former student accused his medical school of expelling him based on discrimination.

The University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (UBMED) dismissed Dean from the M.D. program after he failed to appear for his third administration of Step 1 of the United States medical Licensing Examination. In Dean's original suit, he alleged UBMED's dismissal of him from the school was based on disability and race; he pled violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, 42 U.S.C. sec. 1981, and 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983.

This case is notable because it marks possibly the first time the 2nd Circuit has been asked to analyze the ADA in the context of education discrimination. In doing so, the Court clarified the permissible use of the ADA as applied to former students.

Original Rulings and Appeal

The trial court dismissed Dean's case entirely and granted UBMED's motion for summary judgment. Dean appealed and challenged the court's summary judgment ruling as to the issues of the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and Due Process Claims.

ADA Issue, Rehabilitation Act Issues Reversed

In addressing Dean's appeals on the issues of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, the court analyzed them together as the standards for both actions "are generally equivalent." It noted that violations of both acts require the satisfaction of three prongs: First, that the plaintiff demonstrate that she is a 'qualified individual'; that the defendants are 'subject to one of the Acts'; and third, that she was denied benefits or was discriminated against by the defendant because of her injury.

Treating a Student Like an Employee

The Court of Appeals quickly found that the first two prongs were met. Therefore, prong number three proceeded under the ADA analysis. The analysis of the ADA's third prong in an educational context is novel and the Court essentially treated Dean's case as if he were an employee.

In this way, Dean would be responsible for the burden of persuasion and of production; with the UBMED responsible for affirmative defenses. Since the Court found quickly that Dean was a member of the protected class and that UBMED was a obviously a target defendant, it was up to UBMED to show that Dean failed to persuade.

Plainly Reasonable Accommodations

It had been a "longstanding policy" of UBMED of affording 6-8 weeks exclusively for exam preparation prior to each attempt at Step 1 of the USMLE. Taking into account the effects of his depressive states, the Court concluded that the school failed to give Dean a plainly reasonable accommodation because the time he had to study his test fell short of the school's usual 6-8 policy.

Undue Financial Burdens and "Fundamental Alterations"

Since Dean had proved to the Court that he proved the first two elements of an ADA violation, non-persuasion for summary judgment purposes fell to UBMED. The Court of Appeals found that UBMED failed here because the record was devoid of any evidence that UBMED evaluated or weighed the reasonableness of Dean's request.

Summary judgment for UBMED would have required a record that "diligently assessed" whether Dean's request would have imposed an "undue financial and administrative burden" or would have required "a fundamental alteration to [UBMED's} academic caliber." Since no such record existed, the Court found that the lower court jumped the gun in granting summary judgment in this issue.

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