Before getting started on the blog entry of the day, HUD has asked for public comments on amending their §504 regulations. See here. The public comments will serve as the basis for a proposed rule. Comments are due July 24, 2023.
Today’s case is Ambrose v. St. Johns County School Board, here, an unpublished decision decided by the Middle District of Florida on March 27, 2023. The case deals with several questions including essential eligibility requirements, meaningful access, causation, and whether a person who associates with a person with a disability has standing to pursue a title II claim in addition to the person with the disability. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories, and they are: facts; court’s reasoning that the two-mile rule is not a bar to the case moving forward; court’s reasoning that Ambrose’s lack of meaningful access claim can go forward; court’s reasoning that Ambrose plausibly alleged causation; B.D.’s claim of associational discrimination can go forward; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.
Facts (Taken Directly from the Opinion)
Ambrose is a disabled veteran. Complaint ¶ 1. She suffers from lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, an anxiety disorder, and a panic disorder. Id. ¶ 14. Her young son, B.D., attends Hickory Creek Elementary School, which is in Defendant’s school district. See id. ¶¶ 1, 19. Other Hickory Creek students in B.D.’s subdivision take the bus to school, see id. ¶¶ 37-38, but, because of Defendant’s bus transportation policy, B.D. cannot do so. See id. ¶¶ 40-41. Pursuant to its policy, Defendant does not provide bus transportation for families that live less than 2 miles from the school. Id. ¶¶ 3, 33. B.D. lives 1.9 miles from the school, and as a result does not qualify to ride the bus. See id. ¶¶ 4, 40. But Ambrose cannot drive B.D. to school because of her disabilities, which frequently prevent her from leaving the house. See id. ¶¶ 43, 46. She also cannot walk B.D. to school due to her mobility constraints. Id. ¶ 44. And B.D., who is five years old, cannot walk to school safely by himself. See id. ¶¶ 44-45.
With B.D.’s inability to ride the bus and Ambrose’s inability to provide reliable transportation, Ambrose must “beg family members and neighbors for assistance” in taking B.D. to and from school. Id. ¶¶ 47-48. When no assistance is available, B.D. misses school. See id. ¶¶ 49, 54. According to Plaintiffs, Defendant had “a `hardship exemption’ to the two-mile rule” at the beginning of B.D.’s kindergarten year, so Ambrose requested a waiver to allow B.D. to ride the bus. Id. ¶¶ 51-52. But Defendant denied the request, and later “removed the hardship exemption from its policies.” Id. ¶ 53. A few months later, Ambrose asked Defendant to modify the two-mile rule to “provide her a reasonable modification to the two-mile rule by allowing B.D. to use the bus stop at the front of their subdivision.” Id. ¶ 55. Defendant declined to do so. Id. ¶ 56. Ambrose asked Defendant to reconsider in March of 2022, asserting that the denial violated her and B.D.’s federal rights, but Defendant ignored her request. Id. ¶¶ 57-58. To date, Defendant has not provided Ambrose or B.D. with any accommodation or modification to its rules. Id. ¶ 59.
In the Complaint, Plaintiffs seek compensatory and declaratory relief, along with an injunction requiring Defendant “to provide a reasonable modification to the two-mile rule.” Id. at 20. In Count I, Ambrose asserts that Defendant was deliberately indifferent to her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by failing to accommodate her disability. See id. ¶¶ 70-74. In Count II, B.D. raises a claim of associational discrimination under the ADA based on his mother’s disability status. See id. ¶¶ 78-85. In Counts III and IV, each Plaintiff asserts the same claim as in Counts I and II, respectively, but under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”). See id. ¶¶ 89-96, 100-07. Last, in Count V, Ambrose alleges that she experienced unlawful discrimination under Article I, Section II of the Florida Constitution. See id. ¶¶ 110-15.
Court’s Reasoning That the Two-Mile Rule Is Not a Bar to the Case Moving Forward
- Under title II of the ADA, a qualified individual with a disability is someone who has a disability and meets the essential eligibility requirements for the receipt of services or the participation in programs or activities provided by a public entity with or without reasonable modifications.
- A public entity cannot state that the discriminatory requirement is essential to the fundamental nature of the activity at issue without providing evidence that the procedural requirement is necessary to the substantive purpose behind the requirement.
- Distinguishing essential eligibility requirements from their rules, policy, and practices is a fact specific inquiry.
- The term essential eligibility requirements does not refer to all formal legal eligibility requirements.
- Defendant points to no analogous cases where courts determine that the cited eligibility requirement is essential to the program without a waiver of which would result in a fundamental alteration. Instead, defendant refers to the convenience of a bright line rule.
- Not only does defendant fail to explain why its two-mile rule is essential to a transportation scheme, any explanation would require consideration of information beyond the four corners of the plaintiffs complaint, which exceeds the scope of deciding a motion to dismiss.
- In a footnote, the court notes that the reasonableness of an accommodation is a highly fact specific inquiry.
- Even assuming defendant could show the two-mile rule is or was essential to defendant’s transportation policy, it is not apparent that transportation in the general sense has ever been the service or benefit in question. In fact, plaintiffs allege that the defendant had a hardship exemption to the two-mile rule and that they had made exception to that rule for parents who were not persons with disabilities.
- Assuming the hardship waiver allegations are correct, which must be taken as true for purposes of the motion to dismiss, it is a reasonable inference that Ambrose, as one such parent, met the eligibility requirements for the exemption either as written or with reasonable modifications.
Court’s Reasoning That Ambrose’s Lack of Meaningful Access Claim Can Go Forward
- Ambrose pleaded that she had no consistent alternative for driving her son to school and that the defendant has not offered any accommodations.
- Ambrose further pled that her son often misses school entirely when assistance is unavailable.
- In a footnote, the court noted that while the defendant need not provide the same accommodation a plaintiff requests, that only relates to whether the defendant refused to provide an accommodation and not to whether one was requested in the first place. Therefore, defendant’s argument that Ambrose cannot state a claim without having to suggest an alternative accommodation does not address the claims involved here.
Court’s Reasoning That Ambrose Has Plausibly Alleged Causation
- Ambrose alleges that defendant has made exceptions to the two-mile rule for some parents who did not have disabilities.
- A facially neutral rule can give rise to an ADA or §504 claim because allowing uniformly applied disability neutral policies to trump the ADA’s requirement of reasonable accommodations/modifications would utterly eviscerate that ADA requirement.
- Since Ambrose has alleged that defendant waived the two-mile rule for nondisabled individuals but not for her, she has plausibly alleged discrimination on the basis of disability.
B.D.’s Claim of Associational Discrimination Can Go Forward
- Title II of the ADA at 42 U.S.C. §12132, prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual with a disability by reason of such a disability.
- Title II’s standing provision at 42 U.S.C. §12133, goes even farther by providing a remedy to any person alleging discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of title II.
- Nondisabled individuals only have standing if they allege that title II has been violated.
- Title II is only violated when there is discrimination against a qualified individual with a disability. Prior 11th district court case law in the 11th Circuit is consistent with this principle and 11th Circuit case law, because a person without a disability must allege an injury flowing from discrimination against someone with a disability.
- The threshold for associational standing under both the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA is the same in that persons without disabilities have standing to seek relief under either statute only if they allege that they were personally excluded, personally denied benefits, or were personally discriminated against because of their association with a person with a disability.
- If the discrimination was against a person without a disability, the standing provision does not apply because title II has not been violated. On the other hand, if a person without a disability brings a claim based on discrimination against a person with a disability, §12133 appears to supply that person with the remedy.
- B.D. has alleged discrimination against a person with a disability, i.e. Ambrose, and that the discrimination denied him meaningful access to his education.
- In a footnote, the court noted that title I and III of the ADA unlike title II of the ADA, affirmatively protects nondisabled people rather than merely granting them third-party standing.
- In talking about how title I and title III affirmatively protect people without disabilities if they associate with a person with a disability, the court references 42 U.S.C. §12111(8) as its reasoning. While I don’t agree with the choice of statutory authority the court uses, the court does get the conclusion correct. Both 42 U.S.C. §12112(b)(4) (title I) and 42 U.S.C. §12182(b)(1)(E) (title III) explicitly protect people from discrimination who are discriminated against because of their association with the person with the disability.
- This is not the first case holding that title II protects people from discrimination if the discrimination is because of their association with a person with a disability. We discussed another case like this in this blog entry.
- A very interesting discussion by the court about essential eligibility requirements, particularly the court’s noting that rules, policy, and practices are not necessarily the same as essential eligibility requirements.
- The decision provides a standard for determining an essential eligibility requirement. More particularly, for an eligibility requirement to be essential, it must be necessary to the substantive purpose behind the requirement.
- Just what is an essential eligibility requirement is very fact specific, and that may may make getting summary judgment on the grounds a person is not a qualified person with a disability that much more difficult.
- How you phrase the program, activity, service, or benefit can make a difference.
- Requesting an accommodation and being denied an accommodation are two different concepts.
- Even if a policy is facially neutral, that doesn’t mean you can dispense with the ADA requirements of reasonable accommodations/modifications.
- Bright line rules are always problematic under the ADA because the ADA requires an individualized analysis.