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Judge hears arguments on bar exam application suit

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How far the Indiana Board of Law Examiners can go in asking potential lawyers about their mental-health history was the subject of a federal court hearing Wednesday, where attorneys explored the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act and what might be reasonable in determining someone’s potential fitness to practice law.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and the state’s BLE both appeared before U.S. Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in Indianapolis in the case of Amanda Perdue, et al. v. The Individual Members of the Indiana State Board of Law Examiners, No. 1:09-CV-0842. The two-year-old class-action suit boils down to accusations that certain questions on the state’s bar exam application violate the ADA because those inquiries treat certain applicants differently based on their mental-health history.

The plaintiffs are an Indiana woman who is admitted to practice in Illinois but wants to practice in her home state, as well as the student ACLU chapter at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis where some law students say the could be impacted by the controversial questions.

This hearing had been continued from earlier in the summer, and Judge Pratt is determining whether to grant summary judgment for either side or if the case should proceed.

On one side, the plaintiffs focus on four specific questions that they contend are too broad and go beyond what the state should be asking about mental-health history as far as their childhood when only their current states should be considered in the context of conduct and character in practicing law. But the BLE argues that by simply asking these questions, the state is doing nothing wrong and not treating individuals differently; rather the process is gathering more information to determine if a potential concern exists that might impact a person’s ability to practice law.

Attorneys on each side disagree about key points in the case, from what the evidence proves about bar exam applicants’ impact from these types of questions to how the ADA sections apply or don’t allow the questions, and even whether someone can be injured simply by an entity asking about his or her mental illness. The lawyers also disagree on what caselaw from courts nationwide have decided on these issues.

“These questions go way too far and are invalid in all situations,” said the ACLU of Indiana’s legal director Ken Falk. “No jurisdiction in America has temporally open questions like these that Indiana demands answered by those who want to take the exam. And there is no case anywhere that upholds questions as broad and intrusive as this, and multiple ones that strike them down.”

Tony Overholt with Frost Brown Todd represents the BLE and told the judge that Title II of the ADA, which governs public agencies on these issues, allows the mental-health questions to be asked. Although Title I puts limitations on what can be asked by employers and doesn’t allow criteria or different procedures for those who might be disabled, Overholt said Title II doesn’t contain those same restrictions and only prohibits any specific discrimination based on a person’s disability. That is not happening here, he said.

Plaintiffs are mistaken in trying to claim that an actual injury occurs because of the questions being asked, and that only a flat-out rejection of someone who answers affirmatively on those questions would be an ADA violation, he said. Once a potential lawyer answers a question affirmatively, that person fills out a separate form detailing his or her mental-health history so that the BLE can do an individualized-assessment to determine if any possible concern is warranted.

No one has been denied application because of answering the question affirmatively, although the ACLU has included discovery showing that some applicants withdrew their names or didn’t take the bar exam as a result of these questions being asked. The lawyers on the case disagree about what the discovery shows – one side says it proves the questions are ADA violations because it’s restricting, while the other side contends it shows there’s a need to ask them and it’s not rejecting anyone based on their answers.

They disagree on what triggers an “injury” under the ADA, and they have different views on what’s considered reasonable and appropriate questions.

“Unless we categorically deny people based on their disability, we aren’t violating the ADA,” Overholt said. “When someone answers affirmatively, we do what the ADA tells us to and conduct an individualized assessment. No one is treating them as having a disability, we’re just seeking information and starting an interactive dialogue on this.”

Falk said that argument ignores the injury and belittles those who’ve experienced these “scary and demoralizing” mental-health issues and what they must go through just by disclosing these circumstances from their past.

“It is a big deal, and it’s not allowed by the ADA,” he said.

The ACLU wants the judge to declare that these questions violate the ADA, enjoin them from being asked on applications, and leave it open for the BLE to craft more narrow questions based on the various templates that exist nationwide. The state is arguing for summary judgment on the basis that these questions are necessary and reasonable.

Judge Pratt told the attorneys to expect a ruling on the summary judgment motions by the end of September. The previously-scheduled trial dates for November have been vacated.


 

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  1. On a related note, I offered the ICLU my cases against the BLE repeatedly, and sought their amici aid repeatedly as well. Crickets. Usually not even a response. I am guessing they do not do allegations of anti-Christian bias? No matter how glaring? I have posted on other links the amicus brief that did get filed (search this ezine, e.g., Kansas attorney), read the Thomas More Society brief to note what the ACLU ran from like vampires from garlic. An Examiner pledged to advance diversity and inclusion came right out on the record and demanded that I choose Man's law or God's law. I wonder, had I been asked to swear off Allah ... what result then, ICLU? Had I been found of bad character and fitness for advocating sexual deviance, what result then ICLU? Had I been lifetime banned for posting left of center statements denigrating the US Constitution, what result ICLU? Hey, we all know don't we? Rather Biased.

  2. It was mentioned in the article that there have been numerous CLE events to train attorneys on e-filing. I would like someone to provide a list of those events, because I have not seen any such events in east central Indiana, and since Hamilton County is one of the counties where e-filing is mandatory, one would expect some instruction in this area. Come on, people, give some instruction, not just applause!

  3. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  4. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  5. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

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