The Justice Department announced today that it has entered into a settlement agreement with the Louisiana Supreme Court that will resolve the department’s investigation of the court’s policies, practices and procedures for evaluating bar applicants with mental health disabilities. The department’s investigation found that during the Louisiana bar admissions process licensing entities based recommendations about bar admission on mental health diagnosis and treatment rather than conduct that would warrant denial of admission to the bar.
The settlement agreement ensures the right of qualified bar applicants with mental health disabilities to have equal access to the legal profession as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It prohibits the court from asking unnecessary and intrusive questions about bar applicants’ mental health diagnosis or treatment. It also requires the court to refrain from imposing unnecessary and burdensome conditions on bar applicants with mental health disabilities, such as requests for medical records, compulsory medical examinations or onerous monitoring and reporting requirements. Title II of the ADA prohibits public entities, including licensing entities, from imposing unnecessary eligibility criteria that tend to screen out individuals with disabilities, or imposing unnecessary burdens on individuals with disabilities that are not imposed on others.
The department found that diagnosis and treatment, without problematic conduct, did not effectively predict future misconduct as an attorney and did not justify restrictions on admission. Yet the Louisiana bar admissions process imposed unnecessary burdens on applicants and attorneys based on their diagnosis and treatment, in violation of the ADA. Questions about mental health diagnosis and treatment, such as those used by Louisiana, are counterproductive to licensing entities’ interest in attorney fitness because individuals who would benefit from mental health treatment may be deterred from obtaining it by the knowledge that they will have to disclose their treatment to licensing authorities.
“Today’s agreement will ensure that qualified bar applicants with mental health disabilities are able to pursue their dream of becoming licensed attorneys, without discrimination based on diagnosis or treatment,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Molly Moran for the Civil Rights Division. “Qualified individuals with disabilities, including mental health disabilities, have valuable contributions to make to the legal profession and to their communities. Their diagnosis should not hinder or prevent them from doing so. Though bar licensing entities have the important responsibility of ensuring that all licensed attorneys are fit to practice law, licensing entities must discharge this responsibility in a manner that is consistent with civil rights laws.”
“This agreement is a testament to the United States Department of Justice’s commitment to fighting discrimination against persons with disabilities and further ensures that qualified individuals will have the opportunity to pursue their career goals and make valuable contributions to our community,” said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Allen Polite Jr. for the Eastern District of Louisiana. “The cooperation between the parties in reaching this agreement demonstrates a shared priority of protecting against discrimination.”
Under the agreement, the court will, among other actions:
• Revise its character and fitness screening questions so that they focus on applicants’ conduct or behavior, and ask about an applicant’s condition or impairment only when it currently affects the applicant’s ability to practice law in a competent, ethical and professional manner or is disclosed to explain conduct that may otherwise warrant denial of admission;
• Refrain from imposing unnecessary burdens on applicants with mental health disabilities by placing onerous disability-based conditions on their admission, invading their privacy, or violating their confidentiality;
• Re-evaluate prior and pending applications of applicants who disclosed mental health disabilities under the revised, non-discriminatory procedures set forth in the agreement; and
• Pay $200,000 to compensate a number of affected bar applicants and attorneys.
Since the department’s letter of findings concluding that the court was in violation of Title II of the ADA was issued in February, the court has worked cooperatively with the department to negotiate an agreement and to implement corrective measures.
The department has also raised issues about unnecessary bar application questions related to mental health disabilities with the states of Vermont and Connecticut and with the National Council of Bar Examiners (NCBE). The NCBE revised two of its questions about mental health on February 24, 2014.
More information about this settlement agreement and the obligations of licensing entities under the ADA may be found at www.ada.gov or by calling the toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 or 800-514-0383 (TTY).