Before we discuss the details of that case: A quick reminder about the ADA.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires certain employers to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities who are qualified to perform a job. To what extent the employer must go to provide these accommodations, however, may not be clear to the employer.
Under federal law, employers with 15 or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities on the basis of their disabilities. The ADA protects a disabled individual who can perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without reasonable accommodation. The term "disability" is defined as including a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency charged with enforcing the employment discrimination provisions of the ADA.
Because the ADA is a relatively new statute, the law has evolved as federal courts have interpreted the Act. In addition to being prohibited from discriminating against professors, custodians, and other traditional employees, colleges and universities have been prohibited from discriminating against students with disabilities under the ADA.
In Zukle v. The Regents of California, 166 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 1999), a medical student at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine brought an ADA claim against the school alleging discrimination based upon a reading disability.
During Zukle's first two semesters, she received several "provisional" grades, which are failing grades which the student may improve by retaking the examination. After her second semester, Zukle was referred to the Medical School's Student Evaluation Committee. She was placed on academic probation and granted an extra year to complete the pre-clinical portion of the school's curriculum. Zukle still received several more provisional grades despite the additional time.
Zukle was subsequently diagnosed as having a reading disability which prohibited her from comprehending written material when placed under time constraints. The Medical School was informed of Zukle's condition and offered her various accommodations and techniques to improve her reading comprehension.
Even with these accommodations, Zukle continued to suffer academically. Shortly after beginning her first clinical clerkship, Zukle learned that she had failed the United States Medical Licensing Exam. The Medical School allowed her to interrupt her clerkship to study for the re-examination. After the re-examination, Zukle requested that her first clerkship be postponed so that she could begin a second clerkship. This request was denied and she was required to complete the first clerkship. Zukle received a provisional grade for this clerkship and was placed, once again, on academic probation.
Near the end of her second clerkship, Zukle's request for extra time to catch up on her reading for the clerkship's written examination was denied. Zukle passed the exam, but received a failing grade for the clinical portion of the clerkship. This failing grade meant Zukle was subject to dismissal pursuant to the Medical School's by-laws. The Medical School's Promotions Board voted to dismiss Zukle because she "lacked the capacity to develop or use the skills and knowledge required to confidently practice medicine." Zukle's appeal was denied, and she filed suit alleging discrimination based on her disability under the ADA.
The Ninth Circuit stated that in order to succeed on her claim, Zukle had to show that (1) she was disabled under the Act, (2) she was "otherwise qualified" to remain a student at the medical school, i.e., she could meet the essential eligibility requirements of the school, with or without reasonable accommodation, (3) she was dismissed solely because of her disability, and (4) the medical school was a public entity.
The medical school conceded that Zukle was disabled and that the school was a public entity, and therefore subject to the ADA. The medical school disputed whether Zukle could meet the eligibility requirements of the school, with or without reasonable accommodation.
The ADA requires that a public entity "make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures when the modifications are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability, unless the public entity can demonstrate that making the modification would fundamentally alter the nature of the services, program, or activity." Under a prior Supreme Court decision, an educational institution is not required to make fundamental or substantial modifications to its program or standards. It is only required to make reasonable modifications.
Zukle had the initial burden of proving that a reasonable accommodation existed that would enable her to meet the medical school's essential eligibility requirements. The burden then shifted to the school to show that the requested accommodation required a fundamental or substantial modification of its program or standards, or that the requested accommodation did not enable Zukle to meet its academic standards.
In its analysis, the court adopted a view held by other circuits, giving deference to an educational institution's academic decisions. The court noted that the school had attempted to accommodate Zukle by allowing her to maintain a decelerated schedule, giving her double the amount of time to take exams, providing her with note-taking services and offering text books on cassette. Even with these accommodations, Zukle continued to receive failing grades. The court then analyzed the issue of whether the medical school was required to grant Zukle's additional requests, such as giving her a decelerated clinical schedule and extra time off of clinical clerkships to catch up on reading.
The court held that the school was not required to do so, finding that no other student had ever been allowed to rearrange clerkships and that doing so would be a substantial alteration of the curriculum. The school's failure to grant Zukle's request for additional time off was not prejudicial because she passed the written exam without the additional reading time. The court also found that a decelerated clinical schedule would be unreasonable because it would have lowered the school's academic standards. Zukle's claim under the ADA, therefore, failed.
The Zukle case illustrates the fact that the extent to which an employer must go to comply with the law is not always clear. By virtue of the nature of the ADA, and the infinite number of fact patterns which may arise, the law under the ADA has, and will continue to evolve on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately for employers, this means a black and white answer to their questions is not always possible.