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Federal Complaint Alleges Court Questions To Bar Applicants Violates Americans With Disabilities Act

Posted: September 16, 2015|Category: Discrimination Category: Privacy

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU) and the Rhode Island Disability Law Center (RIDLC) have filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Supreme Court of Rhode Island and its Committee on Character and Fitness over inquiries on a questionnaire for admission to the Rhode Island Bar that the complaint alleges violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The complaint, filed with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, challenges the legality of three broadly worded questions that ask about applicants’ past history of drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, or other disability, and require applicants to provide detailed information about any treatment they have had or are receiving.

The complaint charges that the disputed questions inappropriately “presume a link between diagnosis and treatment and the ability to practice law,” subject people with disabilities to “additional burdens, including disclosure of sensitive health care information, in violation of the ADA,” and “are unnecessary because they do not effectively identify unfit applicants.” Rather, the complaint states, “There are numerous other questions on the Petition/Questionnaire that serve as more effective, and non-discriminatory, screening questions, because they shed light on past behavior or conduct which may be relevant to the practice of law.” Those questions delve into past educational, employment and military service, credit, business ventures and litigation history, and “help the Court address its role in safeguarding the public interest.”

The complaint also argues that asking the disputed questions is counterproductive because it may deter applicants from seeking help with their mental health, substance use or other disability-related needs.

The questions that are the subject of the complaint ask whether an applicant has, in the past three years, been addicted to or treated for the use of any drug, including alcohol; or “suffered from any condition or impairment” that impairs their judgment, or, if untreated, could affect their ability to practice law; or if in the past ten years, they have cited the “consumption of drugs or alcohol or a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder or condition” as a “defense, mitigation or explanation” during any administrative or judicial proceeding. If an applicant answers “yes” to any of the questions, they must provide thorough details of the situation and any treatment. All applicants for the Bar must satisfactorily complete this questionnaire, designed to review moral character and fitness, in order to practice law in the state.

The complaint notes that, back in 1996, the R.I. Supreme Court found that similar questions appearing on the questionnaire at that time violated the ADA, agreeing that there was no empirical evidence associating a history of mental health treatment or treatment for addiction with a greater incidence of disciplinary action by attorney licensing entities or with an inability to function in the workplace. The Court ordered substantial changes to the questions at that time, but for unknown reasons, questions similar to those removed in 1996 were later reinstated in the form that exists today.

The R.I. Bar Association raised concerns with the Committee on Character and Fitness over a year ago about the legality of the questions, pointing to a 2014 Department of Justice finding that similar questions asked of Bar candidates in Louisiana violated the ADA. The ACLU and RIDLC also wrote the Committee in January of this year to urge removal of the questions. Nine months later, no changes have been made, prompting today’s filing.

The complaint, filed by RIDLC attorneys Anne Mulready and Brian Adae and by ACLU volunteer attorney Ellen Saideman, asks the Department of Justice to order the removal of the questions.

The complainant, a recent law school graduate with a disability, and who is identified in the complaint as A.S., said today: “It is frustrating to know that those responsible for deciding whether I am fit to practice law have themselves chosen to ignore the law.  Questions like these are the reason why many people never seek help with a possibly serious medical condition.” 

RIDLC attorney Adae said: “Eliminating the three bar application questions furthers important goals of the ADA -- to promote equality of opportunity for people with disabilities and their economic self-sufficiency.  Individuals with disabilities can and do practice law competently and with integrity, and enrich our legal community by reflecting the diversity of the public we serve.”

ACLU attorney Saideman added: “These questions reflect stereotypes which are inconsistent with the ADA and also discourage people from both seeking and continuing treatment. The Questionnaire, which includes a credit history check as well as review of prior employment, among other things, already has ample information to assess the suitability of candidates for the practice of law.”

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