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Would-be lawyer loses ADA challenge based on mental-health questions

Posted Apr 2, 2014 6:15 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The Vermont Supreme Court has rejected a challenge by a would-be lawyer who contends the state’s bar-admission rules and practices violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The state supreme court said the bar applicant was rejected because of his conduct, apart from his mental health history or status. “We recognize the need for compassion and respect towards those who suffer from mental health disabilities, the vast majority of whom are able to effectively treat their symptoms and contribute productively to society,” the court said. The Legal Profession Blog noted the case and linked to the March 28 decision.

A commissioner who heard the appeal said the bar applicant had not followed recommended treatment plans, had not cooperated fully in releasing medical records, and demonstrated “continuing paranoia and obsession with the corruption” of the Vermont family court. The state supreme court said the record “amply supports” the commissioner’s findings.

“The commissioner found, with reason, that applicant’s demonstrated inability to focus and to ‘filter his presentations’ in a variety of legal forums would render his representation of clients other than himself highly problematic, and demonstrated an inability to ‘make proper presentations of fact and law on behalf of a client or to focus on the client’s needs in or out of court,’“ the state supreme court said.

The applicant first sought admission to the Vermont bar in 2004.

The disability issue was in the news last month when the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division said mental-health questions on bar applications could violate the ADA. In a letter to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the division said questions in character and fitness applications should focus on conduct rather than mental-health status of the applicant. A similar but shorter letter concerning Vermont bar admission standards was sent to the Vermont Human Rights Commission in January, according to the prior report.

The Vermont ruling lists the challenged questions, which are taken from a questionnaire by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. They are:

• Within the past five years, have you been diagnosed with or have you been treated for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, paranoia, or any other psychotic disorder?

• Do you currently have any condition or impairment (including, but not limited to, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, or a mental, emotional, or nervous disorder or condition) which in any way currently affects, or if untreated could affect, your ability to practice law in a competent and professional manner?

• If your answer to [the above question] is yes, are the limitations caused by your mental health condition or substance abuse problem reduced or ameliorated because you receive ongoing treatment (with or without medication) or because you participate in a monitoring program?

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