What's New About Discrimination

By Katy Michaelis

The Tenth Circuit upheld a lower court decision to grant summary judgment for the New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI) in a disability discrimination suit, finding that the plaintiff, Sarah Ellenberg, failed to make a prima facie case for her discrimination claims.  Ellenberg v. New Mexico Military Institute, No. 08-2112 (10th Cir. Jul 10, 2009).

“In 2003, NMMI denied Ellenberg admission, citing behavioral problems manifested in her presence at a residential treatment facility, admitted past drug use, level of medication requirements, and need for continued counseling.”  Ellenberg subsequently sued the school under three federal disability laws: (1) the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); (2) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504); and (3) Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Her claims under IDEA were dismissed in a previous appeal because she had not exhausted her administrative remedies.  On remand, she pursued her Section 504 and ADA claims.  The primary issue on appeal was whether Ellenberg provided sufficient evidence that she has a disability as it is defined by Section 504 and the ADA.

The district court granted summary judgment to NMMI because Ellenberg had not made a prima facie showing that she has a disability as is required for Section 504 and ADA relief.  Ellenberg relied on the fact that she qualified for IDEA special education services to demonstrate her disability.  However, the court found that the statutes have different requirements, and thus IDEA eligibility was not sufficient to show that Ellenberg qualifies for relief under Section 504 and the ADA.  The Tenth Circuit agreed and affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of NMMI.

Section 504 and the ADA apply to “qualified handicapped person[s]” and “qualified individuals with a disability,” respectively.  The court found that the two definitions mirror each other so the analysis for each is the same.  A handicapped or disabled person is one who “has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  Ellenberg relied on the fact that a “qualified handicapped person” includes a handicapped person eligible for IDEA.  However, the court pointed out that those eligible for IDEA only qualify for Section 504 and ADA relief if they are, in fact, handicapped as defined by the relative statutes.  It thus found that individuals eligible for IDEA still must demonstrate that their impairment “substantially limits one or more major life activities” to qualify for Section 504 or ADA relief. 

To qualify for IDEA, Ellenberg only had to show that she has an impairment or disability, which requires “special education and related services.”  The court found that an individual eligible for IDEA may qualify as a handicapped person under Section 504 and the ADA, but this is not “always and necessarily” true.  Moreover, Section 504 case law indicates that claimants must provide individualized evidence of their disability.  Thus, IDEA eligibility alone is not sufficient to establish an individual’s disability as one that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

The court makes it clear that Ellenberg’s disability may very well “substantially limit” one of her “major life activit[ies],” such as education.  But Ellenberg had the burden of showing that this is so, and because she only offered evidence that she qualified for IDEA, but provided no individualized evidence of her disability, she had not met her burden.