People For the American Way Foundation

Biden Judge Rules that Student Seeking Damages for Failure to Accommodate Disability Need Not Exhaust Administrative Remedies

Biden  Judge Rules that Student Seeking Damages for Failure to Accommodate Disability Need Not Exhaust Administrative Remedies

Judge Maria Kahn, nominated by President Biden to the Second Circuit court of appeals, wrote a unanimous decision reversing a lower court and ruled that a student suffering from asthma could go forward with a claim for damages against a school district which, she contends, failed to accommodate her disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The court rejected the student’s claim that she had a fundamental constitutional right to avoid wearing a mask during COVID-19.  The April 2024 ruling was in Doe v Franklin Square Union Free School Dist.


What is the background of this case?

Pursuant to state regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Franklin Union Free School District in New York required that students, faculty and staff wear masks at school beginning in 2020-21, with exemptions possible for medical reasons. Jane Doe, mother of student Sarah Doe, sought an accommodation for her child, who has severe asthma. All her requests, including remote learning, wearing a mesh mask in an air conditioned classroom, and removal of the mask during physical activity, were denied despite a doctor’s recommendation. The mask requirement continued into 2021-22.

In the fall of 2021, Jane Doe filed suit in federal court, seeking injunctive relief and damages. The complaint maintained that the school district was violating the Constitution’s due process clause because it had not shown that a compelling interest justified its conduct that allegedly violated fundamental constitutional rights, and also contended the district’s failure to accommodate Sarah violated the ADA and Section 504.

The parties later agreed on a partial accommodation, under which Sarah could wear a mesh mask. Jane Doe continued to allege that the accommodation was insufficient, claiming that although Sarah  “can breathe a little better” and was having fewer asthma attacks with the mesh mask, she “still has trouble breathing sometimes” and developed “fungal rashes” that caused her to miss school on some occasions. The district moved to dismiss the complaint and noted that the request for injunctive relief became moot as of late March 2022, when it adopted a mask-optional policy pursuant to revised state rules.

The district court granted the motion to dismiss in 2023. It agreed that the injunctive relief request had become moot. It ruled that the district had violated no fundamental constitutional right and that it clearly had a rational basis for its conduct. It dismissed the ADA and 504 claims for damages, claiming that the Does had improperly failed to exhaust administrative remedies. Agreeing that the injunctive relief requests had become moot, Jane Doe appealed the remainder of the case to the Second Circuit.


How did Judge Kahn and the Second Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?

Judge Kahn wrote a unanimous decision that partly reversed and partly affirmed the lower court. She agreed with the district court that the Does had no proper basis for their constitutional claims, based on a careful analysis of the alleged facts and prior precedent.  In particular, she found that the district’s actions ‘did not implicate a fundamental constitutional right” and “easily satisfy rational basis review.”

On the other hand, Judge Kahn and the Second Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the Does’ claim for damages under Section 504 and the ADA for failing to reasonably accommodate Sarah’s disability. Based on the record and prior precedent, Judge Kahn explained that determining whether the mesh mask accommodation was sufficient required a “fact-specific” inquiry that could not be based solely on the record at a motion to dismiss without discovery. She also specifically rejected the lower court conclusion that administrative remedies for the Does’ claim under the ADA and Section 504 had to be exhausted. She explained that Supreme Court and other precedent made clear that Sarah’s “real complaint is one” for damages based on “disability-related discrimination” because of the district’s alleged “refusal to provide a reasonable accommodation,” as to which exhaustion would be futile and is not required. The Second Circuit sent the case back to the lower court, where the Does’ claim for damages could go forward.

Judge Kahn’s decision was obviously important to Jane and Sarah Doe, who can now get their day in court against the school district for alleged disability-based discrimination. The decision also sets important precedents in rejecting the constitutional claim about face masks but making clear that a school district can be sued for anti-disability discrimination for failing to adequately accommodate a disability like severe asthma without exhaustion of administrative remedies. This is especially true in the Second Circuit, including New York, Vermont and Connecticut. The ruling also reinforces the importance of promptly confirming more fair-minded judges like Judge Kahn to our federal courts.