ADA lawsuit about Florida bar examiners' mental health requirements allowed to proceed
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A federal judge in Florida has allowed a suit by a law student to go forward against the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, alleging that the board violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring candidates with mental health conditions to undergo and pay for invasive procedures.
The ADA lawsuit was brought by Julius Hobbs, the Daily Business Review reports. A student at the Western Michigan University Cooley School of Law’s Tampa campus, Hobbs as a first-year student in 2016 submitted a bar application to the board of bar examiners. In it, he disclosed that he’d been treated at the Veterans Administration Medical Center for adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, and alcohol-use disorder, according to the June 16 order.
Hobbs also disclosed in the application that he’s been arrested for driving under the influence. An Army captain who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hobbs attributes his mental health issues to work dealing with explosive devices. His bar application included a letter from his clinical psychologist, who wrote that Hobbs had undergone treatment and was making significant progress.
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners told Hobbs that it needed all of his medical records. Also, he would need to submit a full medical evaluation, which would include a psychiatric evaluation, a substance us disorder evaluation, a complete physical examination and psychosocial testing, according to the order. The exams had to be done by one of 11 doctors specified by the board, and Hobbs would need to pay for it, with the procedures costing up to $5,000.
Also, the board told Hobbs that he could choose to have an investigative hearing, which would cost $250.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Hinkle did not rule on the merits of the case. However, he noted that if it were proven true that the board forced Hobbs “to submit to invasive procedures and to expend funds not because the requirements serve a purpose in determining his fitness to practice law, but only because he has a disability,” the board committed a violation of the ADA. “Placing unnecessary hurdles in the path of a person with a disability is the paradigm of an ADA violation,” he wrote in his opinion.
The order notes that the board of bar examiners should “inquire fully” about an applicant’s fitness to practice law, and it’s appropriate for the agency to ask about some mental health conditions, as well as past issues of driving under the influence. Also, the order dismissed the Florida Supreme Court as a defendant.
Hobbs reached out to the VA for help after his personal relationship ended and he faced a child custody battle, according to the Daily Business Review. He told the publication that when he worried, he would drink heavily, and struggle with anxiety and depression.
According to the Florida Board of Bar Examiners’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Hobbs has two DUI arrests, from 2006 and 2012. He received psychotherapy at the Tampa VA hospital between November 2015 and April 2016, six months before he filed his Florida Bar application, the filing states.
The board of bar examiners also asked Hobbs about his 2005 divorce proceedings, his sobriety date and what sort of support he was getting for the alcohol use disorder, according to its motion to dismiss. It argued that Hobbs lacked standing, because he had withdrawn his bar application following the agency’s response.
Hobbs does have standing, the June 16 order states, because he plans to apply again and expects to graduate in 12 months. If he waited five more years to apply, and didn’t receive mental health treatment during that time, he could avoid having avoid having to answer “yes” to the related bar application question, according to the order.
A statement sent by James J. Dean, who represents the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, said that the board does not comment on individual applications.
“The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, an administrative agency of the Florida Supreme Court, exists to protect the public and safeguard the judicial system through its character and fitness investigations of applicants seeking admission to The Florida Bar. In so doing, the board follows state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act,” the statement reads.
Matthew Dietz, Hobbs’ lawyer, notes that in 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice settled a similar lawsuit with the state of Louisiana. He adds that in 2015, the ABA House of Delegates passed a resolution urging attorney licensing agencies to eliminate questions about an applicant’s mental health history, and instead limit bar admissions questions to issues involving conduct or behavior that would impair someone’s ability to practice law.
“There is no reason why Florida has not adopted the ABA resolution involving not inquiring on a person’s mental health condition,” says Dietz, litigation director of Florida’s Disability Independence Group.“The board of bar examiners should encourage mental healthcare. By doing this, they are just building more barriers for folks who need treatment.”