Nominee’s student disabilities decision ‘not encouraging’

A look at Judge Amy Coney Barrett's education-related decisions as a Circuit Court judge since 2017
By: | September 28, 2020
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 26: Seventh U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett looks on while being introduced by U.S. President Donald Trump as his nominee to the Supreme Court during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House September 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. With 38 days until the election, Trump tapped Barrett to be his third Supreme Court nominee in just four years and to replace the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat left vacant by the Sept. 18 passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could take an approach that limits the rights of students with disabilities, according to one observer. Barrett, the parent of seven children, including one with Down syndrome, has been a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since October 2017, where she has participated in a handful of decisions involving public and private K-12 schools.

Special education decision

In P.F. v. Stanford Taylor, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit, including Judge Barrett, upheld a U.S. District Court ruling finding that the parents of three students with disabilities failed to show Wisconsin’s open enrollment statute was discriminatory as written. The panel acknowledged that the statute allowed districts to deny applications based on the districts’ inability to meet students’ special education needs — criteria that only applied to applicants with disabilities.

The panel explained that an open enrollment program is not discriminatory under the ADA nor Section 504 simply because it takes an individual’s disability into account. The key inquiry is whether the law can be applied in a manner that allows districts to consider the unique needs of each applicant with a disability. Because Wisconsin’s open enrollment law allowed districts to deny applications based on students’ unique needs, as opposed to their status as children with IEPs, it was not discriminatory, the court held.

According to Steven Aleman, senior policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas in Austin, the P.F. v. Stanford Taylor decision suggests that Judge Barrett may take an approach that favors systems over students with disabilities. “To the extent it represents how Judge Barrett might weigh the interest of students with disabilities and champion overcoming barriers to access, the decision in P.F. is not encouraging,” Aleman says.

Other education decisions

Judge Barrett also participated in three general education rulings addressing employment claims and one decision concerning a school district’s provision of free transportation to private school students.

In Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School, the 7th Circuit affirmed a District Court decision granting summary judgment to a religious school on a teacher’s ADA Title I claim. The 7th Circuit held that the “ministerial exception” barred the claim brought by a teacher who taught Hebrew with a cognitive impairment who alleged she was terminated after a confrontation with a parent who allegedly taunted her about her memory problems.

In Fields v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, the 7th Circuit held that an Illinois school district did not discriminate against a 63-year-old Black teacher on the basis of either race or age. Citing the district’s willingness to work with the teacher on improving her performance, the court held that the teacher could not establish discriminatory intent.

Judge Barrett participated in Adams v. Board of Education of Harvey School District 152, in which the 7th Circuit determined that an Illinois superintendent’s filing of a police report when a board member allegedly threatened her after she requested a forensic audit into the district’s finances was protected by the First Amendment. Accordingly, it upheld the $400,000 jury verdict in the superintendent’s favor as to her civil rights lawsuit.

Finally, Judge Barrett participated in St. Joan Antida High School Inc. v. Milwaukee Public School District as a member of the three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit that affirmed summary judgment in favor of a Wisconsin school district regarding its practice of limiting the provision of free transportation to students living farther than one mile from a public transportation stop. However, the court remanded the case for further fact-finding on the issue of whether the district’s deadline for private schools to provide a roster of students requesting state-funded transportation is constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.

Joseph L. Pfrommer, Esq., covers special education legal issues for LRP Publications.