D.Md: Pro Se ADA and Rehabilitation Claims Go Forward

Sherri Adams, a pro se litigant, has been allowed to continue a lawsuit alleging violations of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act against Montgomery College (Rockville). Adams v. Montgomery College (Rockville), No. DKC 09–2278, 2011 WL 2610493 (D.Md. June 30, 2011). The judge in the case is a Clinton appointee.  The plaintiff would benefit from the assistance of an attorney as her case proceeds.

Sherri Adams was a student at the Rockville campus of Montgomery College in Fall of 2008. She told the College of her disabilities, which include “multiple sclerosis, optic neuritis, and back and heart problems,” and that she “has difficulty walking for long distances.” Construction at the College left insufficient handicap parking, and the campus shuttle was not handicap accessible. The College directed that campus security drive her from her vehicle to her classes and back until it could fully accommodate her disabilities. However, a few days later, campus security declined to drive her from class to her vehicle and informed her that the College would not provide transportation thereafter. She fell while walking back to her car and was treated for her injuries at a hospital.

Adams brought suit against the College and several of its officials alleging discrimination under Title II of ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12131, and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 504, negligence, and breach of contract. The defendants sought to dismiss all claims.

Before dealing with the merits of Adams’ discrimination claims, the Court addressed and rejected the defendants’ sovereign immunity argument.  With regard to the ADA, the court noted that the Fourth Circuit held in Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 411 F.3d 474, 490 (4th Cir. 2005), “that Congress abrogated sovereign immunity in Title II of the ADA pursuant to a valid exercise of constitutional authority under the Fourteenth Amendment, ‘at least as it applies to public higher education.’”  Constantine was similarly dispositive with regard to the Rehabilitation Act claims, since the Fourth Circuit held the Rehabilitation Act’s waiver of Eleventh Amendment immunity was “a constitutionally valid exercise of the spending power.”

Turning to Adams’ allegation of discrimination, the Court applied the three-part test from Constantine, 411 F.3d at 498. The first prong, that the plaintiff has a disability, was not contested. The second prong was whether Adams was “otherwise qualified to receive the benefits of a public service, program, or activity.” The opinion reasoned that this prong was satisfied because she was an eligible student at the College, who, with reasonable accommodations, would have been able to attend her classes. The third prong required exclusion on the basis of her disability. Following A Helping Hand, LLC v. Balt. Cnty., 515 F.3d 356, 362 (4th Cir. 2008), a legal claim could be based on “(1) intentional discrimination or disparate treatment; (2) disparate impact; [or] (3) failure to make reasonable accommodations.” The Court found that, by failing to transport Adams back to her vehicle, at least the third basis for the third prong was satisfied.

Furthermore, the court decided that she had sufficiently alleged intentional discrimination, which would be necessary for compensatory damages in the Fourth Circuit. The standard for intentional discrimination applied in the District of Maryland was “a deliberate indifference to a strong likelihood that a violation of federal rights would result.” Proctor v. Prince George’s Hosp. Ctr., 32 F.Supp.2d 820, 829 (D.Md 1998). Following its precedent, the court clarified that acting deliberately out of thoughtlessness and indifference, rather than any intent to deny an individual’s rights, is sufficient for a finding of discriminatory intent in the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. It decided that Adams properly stated a claim that the College “displayed deliberate indifference by knowingly refusing to accommodate her, despite having notice of the potential risk, as evidenced by the student handbook.”

The college argued that the claim for injunctive relief was moot, because handicapped parking spaces had been restored.  But the complaint also alleged an absence of handicapped accessible shuttles and a failure to provide alternative means of transport by security personnel.  Therefore, the court concluded that the claim for injunctive relief was not moot.

The pro se complaint named two state officials and did not specify whether they were being sued in an individual or official capacity.  The court noted that individuals may not be sued in their individual capacities under Title II of the ADA.  Furthermore, the court indicated that there was no need to sue the individuals in their official capacity, since Adams could proceed against the College.

Finally, because the plaintiff had stated valid causes of action under ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, her negligence and breach of contract claims under state law could also proceed.

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