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Court Sets Aside Disability Ruling

June 24, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court set aside a ruling Thursday that said New York officials had discriminated against a law school graduate who failed the state’s bar examination five times.

The justices told a federal appeals court to restudy its ruling in light of their decisions this week limiting the reach of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which bans discrimination against the disabled.

In three rulings Tuesday, the justices narrowed significantly just whom the 1990 law protects. People with physical impairments that can be treated with medication or devices such as eyeglasses or hearing aids generally are not protected by the law, the court said.

In the New York case acted on Thursday, the law school graduate had argued, successfully in lower courts, that her reading disorder qualified her for protection under the federal law.

A federal trial judge and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Marilyn Bartlett, a college instructor who earned a Ph.D. in educational administration from New York University despite her disability but has flunked the New York bar exam five times.

The lower courts ruled that the board of examiners, which administers the state bar exam, had discriminated against Bartlett by failing to accommodate her and now must pay her monetary damages.

Bartlett, a teacher, had wanted additional time to complete the test and the right to mark answers for the multiple-choice portion in a question book rather than on a computerized answer sheet. Her requests were denied.

The federal law bans discrimination against a ``qualified individual with a disability″ because of that disability. A disability is defined as a condition that substantially limits a major life activity.

In its ruling last September, the appeals court said Bartlett’s disability affects reading and learning, major life activities, and was entitled to some accommodations the first four times she took the bar exam.

``Reasonable accommodation of this disability will enable her to compete fairly with others in taking the examination so that it will be her mastery of the legal skills and knowledge that the exam is designed to test _ and not her disability _ that determines whether or not she achieves a passing score,″ the appeals court said.

The trial judge had ordered the board of examiners to pay Bartlett $12,500 in damages, but the appeals court told the judge to recalculate the damages in a way that will award her no more than $10,000.

Bartlett, a graduate of the Vermont Law School, began taking the New York bar exam in 1991. She sued in 1993, and in July of that year was permitted to take the test with the accommodations she sought. She nevertheless failed it.

The damages award, however, was aimed at compensating Bartlett for the four times she was forced to take the test without the accommodations she had sought.

In the appeal acted on Thursday, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer argued that a person ``suffering from a reading impairment who has developed self-accommodating techniques which allow her to read at a speed and in a manner comparable to that of an average person″ should not be covered by the federal anti-bias law.

Lawyers for Bartlett urged the justices to reject the appeal, saying that it does not conflict with the ruling of any other appeals court.

The case is New York Board of Law Examiners vs. Bartlett, 98-1285.

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