In Daubert v. Lindsay Unified School District (9th Cir. – July 25, 2014) 1:09-cv-1463 GSA, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the school district’s motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff claimed that the school football field public bleacher seating’s lack of wheelchair accessibility violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In that instance, the bleachers were accessible only by stairs and the other viewing locations were not on the field.

On appeal, the court held that the District did not have to structurally alter the bleachers to provide access. Since the bleachers were constructed before the ADA’s January 26, 1992 enactment date and was never reconstructed or altered, it constituted an “existing facility” under the ADA. As such, the District need only provide program access by “operating each service, program, or activity so that (. . .) when viewed in its entirety, (it) is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.”  (emphasis added)

Importantly, the court interprets Title II as making a clear distinction between “facilities accessibility” and “program accessibility.”  The District need only provide access to the program.  Here, the public “program” being offered by the District is only the football game, which the bleachers are just part of the “facility” in which the program takes place.

In Daubert, the District had three other specific locations from which persons using wheelchairs are able to watch the games.  Daubert, however, challenged that the alternative locations relegated him to an “inferior view” of the field and denied him a particular social experience.

The court, however, reiterated that the program offered is the football game, to which, the social experience is merely incidental to this program. Additionally, in this matter, it was undisputed that the views were unobstructed in at least three of the alternative locations.

Citing the Supreme Court ruling in Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509, 532 (2004), the court explained that “[i]n the case of older facilities, for which structural change is likely to be more difficult, a public entity may comply with Title II by adopting a variety of less costly measures . . ..”  Structural changes in existing facilities are not required where other methods are effective in achieving compliance. [citing 28 C.F.R. Sec. 35.150(b)(1).]  ​

The Leigh Law Group is a law firm located in San Francisco and Marin County focused on education law, special education law, civil rights, employment law and business law.

Leigh Law Group partner Mandy Leigh argues case before 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

Leigh Law Group founder and partner Mandy Leigh recently argued before the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a longstanding special education case raising issues of first impression in the Ninth Circuit.

Any appearance before a Ninth Circuit panel is of course a privilege but more so in this case due to the participation of the United States Department of Justice who argued in favor of an interpretation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) urged by Ms. Leigh.

The issue of first impression revolved around the interpretation of whether an auditory processing disorder constituted an “other health impairment” for purposes of IDEA eligibility.  Leigh Law Group consistently argued that point in district court proceeding in the case stretching over 8 years.  The history of the case is well articulated by a previous Ninth Circuit opinion in the case here.

The United States Department of Education, the agency charged with interpretation of the IDEA regulations regarding categories of eligibility, concurred and its interpretation of the regulations is entitled to “Chevron” deference, a standard derived from the United States Supreme Court case of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 ( 1984).  Chevron deference means that the agency’s interpretation will be deferred to so long as it is a permissible one.  Here, the interpretation that an auditory processing disorder may constitute an other health impairment appears to be a permissible interpretation of the IDEA.

Ms. Leigh then zealously advocated for her client’s eligibility at the time in question, due to his chronic auditory processing disorder which adversely impacted his education, in response to questioning from the panel of judges.  Regardless of the ultimate result, this case will help define the contours of the IDEA for educators, parents, the judiciary and administrative bodies and legal representatives in the States of California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana,  Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii and Alaska.

Leigh Law Group considers it an honor to participate in the shaping of law and the process of resolving disputes.  Only from fidelity to legal precepts and principles can an orderly society maintain. Leigh Law Group is a California law firm located in San Francisco and Marin counties practicing in the areas of special education law, education law, higher education law, employment law, business litigation and civil rights litigation.