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May 2, 2024 Updated May 3, 2024 Censorship/Surveillance COVID News


School That Forced Student With Asthma to Wear Mask Must Prove Its Case in Court, Appeals Court Rules

In a victory for students with disabilities and their families, an appeals court overturned the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Children’s Health Defense on behalf of a 10-year-old student alleging a New York school district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it refused to accommodate the child’s medical exemption.

lady justice, gavel and stack of books with face mask

“Sarah Doe,” a 10-year-old with severe asthma and anxiety who sued her school after it denied her request for a medical exemption from the district’s mask mandate, may get her day in court after all.

In a victory for students with disabilities and their families, an appeals court reversed the dismissal of Sarah’s lawsuit alleging the Franklin Square Union Free School District in Long Island, New York, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 when it refused to accommodate her medical exemption.

Children’s Health Defense (CHD) sued the school district on behalf of Sarah in September 2021 and filed an amended complaint in January 2022. A district court dismissed the complaint in March 2023.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit last week ruled the lower court wrongly dismissed the suit because, under the ADA, the courts can’t excuse the school from its federal obligation to accommodate disabled children without examining the evidence and specific details of each child’s situation.

“The 2nd Circuit’s decision sets an important precedent that provides a path for relief for those, like Sarah Doe, whose medical exemptions are being improperly denied,” said Sujata Gibson, the attorney representing the Doe family.

Medical exemptions are under attack nationwide, Gibson told The Defender, especially in New York, where it has become almost impossible to challenge denials.

“In normal ADA cases, the parent’s burden is just to establish that their child has a disability and that they asked for an accommodation but were denied,” Gibson said.

“That is supposed to be enough to proceed to trial, where the school then bears the burden of proving that it would either be too unsafe or too expensive to provide the accommodation that the child’s doctor recommends. This is a high burden.”

In cases involving requests to accommodate exemptions from vaccine and mask mandates, Gibson said school districts have been routinely denying the requests — without allowing the parents to present evidence about what their children need — simply because the school disagrees with the child’s treating physicians about what the child needs to stay safe.

“That is what initially happened in this case,” Gibson said.

The 2nd Circuit’s decision protects against these types of dismissals, Gibson said, by affirming that it’s outside the school’s field of expertise to determine the safety of a child whose disability exemption is denied.

“The school’s job is to educate children, not second guess their doctors.”

The 2nd Circuit’s three-judge panel also ruled that parents do not need to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before filing a lawsuit under the ADA.

“This is very important, as administrative appeals can be costly, take years, and involve procedural hurdles that parents might not know about,” Gibson said. “Rather than have to wait for that process to unfold — only to be denied — parents can now go straight to court if a school district denies their child reasonable accommodation.”

Gibson said it could take a year or more before the courts decide Sarah’s lawsuit.

“The next step is discovery, where both sides can ask for evidence and proof supporting the other’s arguments,” Gibson said.

These next steps present “a tremendous opportunity for us,” Gibson said. “There are a lot of questions about the science — or lack thereof — behind the school’s mask policies.”

Only one other mask-related case has made it to the discovery phase in court — the Free Now Foundation’s (formerly CHD California) lawsuit Palicke v. Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in Orange County, set to go to trial this month.

The 2nd Circuit’s ruling may have broader implications for students with disabilities in contexts other than mask mandates.

“This case impacts medical exemption cases, but also disability accommodation requests in general,” Gibson said. “The decision reinforces the obligation of schools to engage in a meaningful interactive process to identify and provide appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities.”

Mesh mask accommodation ‘was essentially a costume’

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York State Department of Health implemented a regulation requiring students to wear masks in schools.

Sarah’s mother, Jane Doe, attempted to secure a medical exemption for Sarah due to her health conditions, which made it difficult for her to tolerate wearing a mask.

Despite repeated requests from Sarah’s treating physician who confirmed that Sarah required a medical exemption, the school district denied the exemption.

School staff reportedly harassed and humiliated her, Gibson said. They would even film her to try to catch her pulling down her mask so she could gasp to breathe.

The school district’s refusal to grant an exemption led to significant hardships for Sarah, who experienced asthma attacks, anxiety and dangerous weight loss, her mother alleged. “It got so bad that her hair started falling out in clumps,” Gibson said.

Frustrated by the school district’s actions, Sarah’s mother — with support from CHD — sued the school district and the commissioner of the New York State Department of Health on Sept. 7, 2021.

Sarah’s lawyers moved for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prohibit the school from enforcing the mask mandate.

On Oct. 26, 2021, the U.S. District Court denied the motion for a preliminary injunction. However, the court indicated it might be willing to consider and grant relief on statutory disability claims.

Because of the court’s decision, the school district agreed to try to accommodate Sarah’s disability by allowing her to wear a mesh mask.

But Sarah still had trouble breathing sometimes. She also developed fungal rashes, causing her to miss school, or to temporarily wear another mask that caused more breathing problems, according to the complaint.

However, the school system wouldn’t allow her to stop using the mesh mask “even though they admitted it had no public health benefit and was essentially a costume,” Gibson said.

On Jan. 20, 2022, CHD filed an amended complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

On March 24, 2023, the District Court dismissed the amended complaint, ruling the claims for declaratory and injunctive relief were moot because the school had since lifted the mask mandate and because the plaintiffs failed to make the case for a substantive due process claim.

“The lower court dismissed the statutory disability accommodation claims, ruling that Sarah and her mother were required to first go through a long and expensive administrative appeals process through the education department before she could sue in federal court,” Gibson said.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires parents who have disagreements with schools to exhaust administrative remedies when they believe their child has been denied a free appropriate public education, or FAPE.

The lengthy process typically involves filing a due process complaint, attending mediation and participating in an impartial hearing.

CHD appealed the District Court’s decision to the 2nd Circuit, which heard oral arguments on Jan. 9 before ruling last week.

“Ultimately, the Doe family is acutely aware that they will never be made truly whole, even if they are paid damages for the harm and trauma these policies caused,” Gibson said. “But they hope to at least help create a precedent that will prevent this from happening so easily to other disabled children.”

This article was updated to include information on the Palicke v. Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District lawsuit.

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