Appeals court says school that forced asthmatic student to wear mask, must now prove its case in court

The following is from The Defender.

“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 1973when 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 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.

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.”

Link to full article here.

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3 thoughts on “Appeals court says school that forced asthmatic student to wear mask, must now prove its case in court”

  1. One small repreve that may or may not turn into victory. Yesterday it was said on RAV that the medical emergency has been extended into 2028 and no one has been accountable yet. Buckle up round 2 is on the horizon. They honed their process on round one so expect round 2 to be way more effective.

  2. As a person who has asthma I do not have a lung capacity of 100%. It is closer to 70% on a good day. When pressured to wear a face mask during covid I found it extremely difficult to breathe and in need of more medication to help me to breathe. Wearing a mask restricted even further my ability to take in air which was frightening to me. The parents of this young child have every right to sue the school district for forcing her to wear a mask. At the very least the school officials should have allowed her to wear a face shield which is what I opted for. What is even worse is that the school district took it upon themselves to decide what was best for the student and disregarded her health issue.

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