S.D.Tex.: rejects 11th Am. defense to ADA claim in education

In a lawsuit against Texas A & M University, a district court held that sovereign immunity did not bar a former student’s claim against the University under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Court also held that the student sufficiently plead violations of Title II of the ADA, Section 504(a) of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The lawsuit stems from the University’s allegedly impermissible denial of the student’s re-admission to a University program after the student injured her back. Purvis v. Texas A & M Univ., No. G-10-520, 2011 WL 5416313 (S.D. Tex. Nov. 8, 2011). Magistrate Judge John R. Froeschner wrote the opinion.

With the intention of pursuing a major in Marine Transportation, Plaintiff Caroline Purvis applied to Texas A & M University (the University) for the 2005 Fall semester. Purvis was admitted to the University, and was also admitted to the University’s Texas Maritime Academy (the Academy). During her subsequent participation in the Academy’s cadet-training program, Purvis injured her back. As a result of her injury, Purvis withdrew from the Academy, but continued to attend classes at the University in its General Studies program.

Approximately two years later, Purvis applied for re-admission to the Academy. However, she met resistance from the administrators of the Academy and the University. During her visit to the office of William McMullen, the Interim Head of Maritime Transportation, she allegedly overheard McMullen tell someone else that while she had good grades, he had reviewed her medical records and concluded that she was not fit to re-enter the program.

Purvis later met with the director of counseling at the University, Dr. Sindylek, who suggested that she undergo testing for learning disabilities. Purvis, who explained that she has an “auditory learning disability,” later changed her mind, since she felt that her disability had not previously been a problem during her studies at the University. Shortly thereafter, the Associate Director of Admissions sent Purvis an email informing her that Dr. Sindylek had not approved her re-admission into the program. A couple of weeks later, Purvis received a formal denial letter from the Rear-Admiral and Superintendent of the Academy, William Pickavance, explaining that she would not be re-admitted into the Academy unless and until she provided proof of her overall fitness. A few weeks later, the University forwarded her a memo, which stated that the reason her application for re-admission was denied was because she stated in her application that she had not suffered from “impaired range of motion or impaired balance or coordination,” which was inconsistent with her health records on file with the University.

In response, Purvis filed a lawsuit against the University, alleging violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504(a) of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. In her lawsuit, she claimed that the University’s latest reason for denying her application, that her application was misleading, was pretext for the real reason for her denial – that the University perceived her as suffering from “auditory learning disability.” Moreover, Purvis claimed that the University discriminated against her on the basis of her gender, since the University had re-admitted similarly-situated male cadets into the Academy after they recovered from their injuries.  The University responded by filing a Motion to Dismiss.

In its opinion, the court first considered the University’s argument that the Eleventh Amendment, bars Purvis’ ADA claim. The court explained that in the ADA context, the Supreme Court has held that a state’s immunity is only abrogated in cases implicating access to courts – see Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004) – and in cases where a state violates one of an individual’s fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. See United States v. Georgia, 546 U.S. 151, 159 (2006). Noting that Purvis’ lawsuit does not implicate access to courts, the court stated that the question for it to resolve was whether Purvis sufficiently alleged that the University violated one of her fundamental rights. To make this determination, the court applied the test set forth in Georgia, which instructs courts to consider three factors: (1) whether the state violated Title II of the ADA; (2) whether the state also violated the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) in the event that the state’s conduct violated Title II but not the Fourteenth Amendment, whether Congress nonetheless had a valid reason to abrogate the state’s sovereign immunity. See id.

Turning to the first factor, the court concluded that Purvis sufficiently alleged that the University discriminated against her in violation of the ADA. The court rejected the University’s argument that Purvis failed to demonstrate that she has a “qualifying disability” that “substantially impairs” a “major life activity,” since Purvis alleged that the University regarded her “auditory learning disability” as such a disability. The court also rejected the University’s argument that Purvis did not allege a Title II violation because she failed to demonstrate a causal link between her “auditory learning disability” and her denial for re-admission to the Academy. The court found it sufficient that Purvis’ pleadings created an inference that the University could have refused her re-admission on account of her perceived disability.

Moving to the second factor, the court first explained that even though Purvis did not allege that the University violated one of her fundamental rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, the court must nonetheless consider whether the University has violated a right under the Fourteenth Amendment that is subject only to rational basis review. Disparate treatment at a state educational program, the court added, is a right protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, albeit under the rational basis test. The court concluded that based on the pleadings alone, it could not conclude that a rational basis existed for the University’s decision to refuse Purvis’ re-admission to the Academy. The court found it important that Purvis alleged that the University’s proffered reason for denying her application, that her application was misleading, was pretext for denying Purvis’ application on account of her perceived disability.

After noting that the University did not address the third factor and that, in any event, Purvis alleged both a Title II and a Fourteenth Amendment violation, the court concluded that the Georgia factors weighed in her favor, and denied the University’s argument that sovereign immunity bars Purvis’ Title II claim.

The court did not seem cognizant of a recent case from the same district in Texas that reached the opposite conclusion.  Baker v. University of Texas Health Science Center Houston, 2011 WL 1549263 (S.D.Tex. Apr. 21, 2011) (see our posting here).  Neither Texas case discussed at all the four circuit decisions from other circuits that have permitted ADA claims in the education context.  Bowers v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 475 F.3d 524 (3d Cir. 2007); Toledo v. Sanchez, 454 F.3d 24 (1st Cir. 2006), cert. denied, 127 S.Ct. 1826 (2007); Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason, 411 F.3d 474 (4th Cir. 2005); Ass’n for Disabled Americans, Inc. v. Florida Int’l Univ., 405 F.3d 954 (11th Cir. 2005).

Next, the court considered and denied the University’s 12(b)(6) Motion. First, the court held that, for the reasons discussed above, Purvis sufficiently stated a Title II claim. The court went on to find that Purvis stated with sufficient particularity a claim under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, since she alleged (1) that the University perceived her as an individual with a disability, (2) that the University’s Academy program is federally funded, and (3) that she was otherwise qualified to participate in the Academy. Finally, the court held that Purvis stated a prima facie Title IX claim, since she alleged (1) that, as a female, she is a member of a protected class, (2) that she was physically capable of participating in the Academy after she recovered from her back injury, (3) that the University, nonetheless, denied her application for re-admission to the Academy, and (4) that she was treated less favorably than similarly-situated male cadets, since the University has allowed them re-admission to the Academy after they recovered from their injuries. Consequently, the court denied the University’s Motion to Dismiss in its entirety.

Scott Herrig, University of California, Berkeley-School of Law 2012


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