Judge Dismissed Disability Discrimination Claims of Student-Athlete Seeking Extra Year of Eligibility

Aug 2, 2019 | ADA

A federal judge from the Middle District of Florida has granted the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), Inc.’s motion to dismiss the claim of a high school student-athlete, who claimed he was discriminated against based on his disability, finding that what the plaintiff sought in order to obtain an extra year of eligibility “was not a reasonable accommodation.”
 
Plaintiff Thomas Pritchard, an 18-year-old high school senior at the Canterbury School in Fort Myers, did gain a small victory, however, when the court denied the FHSAA’s motion to dismiss his disparate impact claim, ruling that it would be premature to make such a ruling, prior to discovery.
 
In providing context to its ruling, the court noted that the FHSAA adopts and publishes bylaws relating to student-athlete eligibility. One such bylaw provides the following:
 
“9.5.1 High School Student Has Four Years of Eligibility. A student is limited to four consecutive school years of eligibility beginning with school year he/she begins ninth grade for the first time. This does not imply that the student has four years of participation. After four consecutive school years, the student is permanently ineligible.”
 
This relevancy of the bylaw comes into play after a review of Pritchard’s circumstances. The plaintiff participated in interscholastic athletics in Virginia in 9th and 10th grade. He then moved to Florida, where he enrolled at Canterbury High School. Based on a pre-enrollment assessment, Canterbury administrators recommended that he repeat the 10th grade. Plaintiff did so, and competed in the school’s basketball and lacrosse programs. The following year in the 11th grade, plaintiff competed in the school’s football, basketball, and lacrosse programs. Under the defendant’s Bylaw 9.5.1, this was the final year of plaintiff’s eligibility because it was his fourth consecutive year in high school.
 
Pritchard entered the 12th grade at Canterbury with hopes of participating in another year of athletics. In August 2018, Canterbury filed a request with the defendant to waive Bylaw 9.5.1 and allow the plaintiff to have a fifth year of eligibility. During the 2017-18 school year, Canterbury staff recommended a psychologist test the plaintiff. A full psychoeducational evaluation concluded the plaintiff possessed a learning disorder with impairment in reading and comprehension. Canterbury administrators also identified a previous injury to the plaintiff’s hand, which caused him to have to write with his non-dominate hand, as a physical disability that adversely affected his math proficiency. As a supplement to the school’s requested waiver, the plaintiff’s attorney argued that a waiver was appropriate because of, inter alia, the plaintiff’s learning disability and his hand injury.
 
The FHSAA’s Sectional Appeals Committee held a hearing on the matter on Sept. 6, 2018 and ultimately denied the request for a waiver. A second hearing was held on Oct. 4, 2018 with the same result. The plaintiff appealed the committee’s decision to defendant’s Board of Directors, which conducted a hearing on Oct. 28, 2018. The Board upheld the committee’s ruling denying the waiver on Nov. 1, 2018.
 
On Feb. 13, 2019, the plaintiff filed a three-count verified complaint against the defendant, alleging the following: (1) disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); (2) disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; and (3) disparate impact discrimination under the ADA. He sought a judgment declaring Bylaw 9.5.1 discriminatory as it applied to him, a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction, a permanent injunction, and monetary damages.
 
Less than a month later, the FHSAA moved to dismiss, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or failure to state a claim.
 
The court first considered the Rehabilitation Act claim, which states, in pertinent part, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). Accordingly, to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, plaintiff must show that he was: (1) disabled or perceived to be disabled; (2) a qualified individual; and (3) discriminated against on the basis of his disability. Shannon v. Postmaster Gen. of U.S. Postal Serv., 335 Fed. App’x 21, 24 (11th Cir. 2009) (citing Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005)).
 
The plaintiff’s claim fell short at the third prong. “It is clear plaintiff is not being excluded from participating in high school athletics ‘solely by reason’ of his disability,” wrote the court. “Rather, plaintiff has completed four consecutive years and, therefore, he is ineligible under defendant’s bylaws.” See Sandison v. Mich. High Sch. Athletic Ass’n, Inc., 64 F.3d 1026, 1032 (6th Cir. 1995) (finding high school athletic association’s rule disqualifying students who reach nineteen years of age by a specified date could not be characterized as a decision made “solely by reason” of a student’s disability because it was a neutral rule applied neutrally); see also Baird ex rel. Baird v. Rose, 192 F.3d 462, 468 n.6 (4th Cir. 1999) (“Undoubtedly, the application of a neutral rule that applies to disabled and nondisabled individuals alike cannot be considered discrimination on the basis of disability.”).
 
The court added that Pritchard “has failed to sufficiently allege he is ‘otherwise qualified’ to participate. Due to his completion of four consecutive years of high school, the plaintiff cannot meet defendant’s requirements regardless of his disability. To the extent the verified complaint asserts the defendant should have accommodated the plaintiff by allowing him a fifth year of eligibility and participation, the court disagrees. Under the Rehabilitation Act, a disabled individual is ‘otherwise qualified’ to participate in a program if, with ‘reasonable accommodation,’ the individual can meet the ‘necessary’ requirements of the program. Sandison, 64 F.3d at 1034 (citing Doherty v. S. Coll. of Optometry, 862 F.2d 570, 574 (6th Cir. 1988)). However, an accommodation is not reasonable if it imposes ‘undue financial and administrative burdens,’ or if it requires a ‘fundamental alteration in the nature of [the] program.’ Sch. Bd. of Nassau Cty., Fla. v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273, 287 n.17, 107 S. Ct. 1123, 94 L. Ed. 2d 307 (1987).
 
“As several circuit courts have concluded considering similar issues, the court finds the accommodation requested by the plaintiff would constitute a fundamental alteration to the nature of the defendant’s eligibility program. See McPherson v. Mich. High Sch. Athletic Ass’n, Inc., 119 F.3d 453, 462 (6th Cir. 1997) (‘Requiring a waiver of the eight-semester rule, under the circumstances present here, would work a fundamental alteration in Michigan high school sports program.’); Sandison, 64 F.3d at 1035 (concluding waiver of age restriction fundamentally alters the high school sports program); Pottgen v. Mo. State High Sch. Activities Ass’n, 40 F.3d 926, 929-30 (8th Cir. 1994) (finding age restriction was an essential eligibility requirement and waiving such a requirement would constitute a fundamental alteration of high school sports program). Accordingly, the Court finds plaintiff has failed to plead a prima facie case of discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act.”
 
Turning to the discrimination claim brought under the ADA, the court noted that Title II of the ADA provides that ‘no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.’ 42 U.S.C. § 12132. To state a claim under Title II, plaintiff must show:
 
“(1) that he is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) that he was either excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of a public entity’s services, programs, or activities, or was otherwise discriminated against by the public entity; and (3) that the exclusion, denial of benefit, or discrimination was by reason of the plaintiff’s disability.” Bricoll v. Miami-Dade Cty., 480 F.3d 1072, 1083 (11th Cir. 2007).
 
The ADA claim mirrored the Rehabilitation Act claim in many ways.
 
As above, because the court has determined that “such a waiver would constitute a fundamental alteration of defendant’s eligibility program, … it is not a reasonable modification. See Sandison, 64 F.3d at 1037 (concluding waiver of age restriction was not a reasonable modification); Pottgen, 40 F.3d at 931 (same). Furthermore, the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to sufficiently allege his exclusion from participation was ‘by reason’ of his disability.“
 
Lastly, regarding the allegation of disparate impact discrimination under the ADA, the court wrote that to establish a prima facia case, the plaintiff needs discovery. Without it, it “is virtually impossible for a Plaintiff to present data reflecting disparate impact. To hold otherwise would, in the vast majority of cases, shut the courthouse door on a plaintiff alleging a claim based on disparate impact.”
 
Pritchard v. Fla. High Sch. Ath. Ass’n; M.D. Fla.; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75850 *; 2019 WL 1993511; 5/6/19
 
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Michael Lamar Buckner, Michael L. Buckner Law Firm, P.A., Plantation, FL. (for defendant) Leonard E. Ireland, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Clayton-Johnston, PA, Gainesville, FL.


 

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