Doing the Right Thing: Disability Discrimination and Readmission of Academically Dismissed Law Students


The Article explores an issue with which many law schools, law students, and courts struggle. It begins with an overview of the relevant federal disability discrimination statutes, with particular attention to recent United States Supreme Court decisions that strictly interpret the “disabilities” protected by these statutes, and to recent cases in which lower courts have accordingly held that a student’s impairment is not a statutorily protected disability. As it turns out, many dismissed law students submitting documentation of a disability are not legally disabled in the first instance. The statutory overview also compares the markedly different approach of the federal preK-12 special education statute (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”)), under which many such students were served earlier in their educational careers, and which creates expectations on the part of the students about their eligibility and protection under higher education disability law.

The Article also reviews and examines the Supreme Court’s tradition of deference to higher education academic decisions, recently reiterated in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases, in which higher education admissions decisions were challenged as racially discriminatory. The Article then reviews the body of law (both actual lower court cases and OCR administrative opinions) in which academically dismissed higher education students denied readmission have made disability discrimination claims. In the overwhelming majority of these cases and opinions, including all of the court cases involving law schools, schools have prevailed without going to trial, normally by receiving summary judgment. Moreover, courts in these cases have regularly announced a policy of deferring to the school’s academic decisions concerning academic dismissal and readmission. Examination of the few court cases in which (non law) schools were not granted summary judgment offers helpful guidance to law schools faced with such claims.

The Article finds that the courts’ approach in these cases is appropriate, although no doubt frustrating to students whose planned careers may well have ended. The Article concludes by offering guidelines for law schools trying to do the right thing (i.e. make a decision which is both principled and nondiscriminatory) when faced with readmissions petitions by Student or other dismissed students claiming a disability.


Education Law

Date of this Version

April 2006