Court Upholds Student Expulsion Because School Exempt From ADA And Rehabilitation Act

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Feb 28, 2024

R.R.D. is a former student at Archbishop Wood High School, a private school affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.  In September 2021, at the start of his sophomore year, R.R.D. sought a medical exemption from the School’s COVID-19 masking requirement.  A note from his physician stated that R.R.D. suffered from mask induced epistaxis (i.e., nosebleeds), and recommended social distancing and frequent handwashing as an alternative accommodation to wearing a mask.

The School granted R.R.D’s request, placed a sticker on the back of his student ID to denote the exemption, and required R.R.D. to maintain at least six feet distance from others.  Masked students, in comparison, needed to remain only three feet apart.  In class, R.R.D.’s desk was moved to accommodate the six feet distance.  As the only student without a mask, R.R.D. claimed that teachers in the hallway would repeatedly demand his ID for proof of his mask exemption, and on some occasions, a teacher directed him to sit in the back of the auditorium, considerably farther than six feet from others.

R.R.D. felt harassed by this treatment, and it was his personal belief that six feet of social distancing was medically unnecessary.  R.R.D.’s father also expressed disagreement with the School’s COVID-19 protocols.  Nonetheless, R.R.D., his father, nor his doctor made any specific requests to alter R.R.D.’s accommodation.

During this same period, R.R.D. experienced repeated bullying from another student, unrelated to the mask exemption or distancing requirement.  R.R.D. did not notify teachers or administrators about the bullying until a fistfight broke out between the two students.  Both students were suspended and eventually expelled for the fight.

R.R.D. filed suit, claiming that the mask induced epistaxis constituted a disability that the School failed to accommodate under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  R.R.D. also alleged that the School retaliated against him for requesting an accommodation, by allowing him to face harassment and bullying by teachers.  Lastly, R.R.D. claimed the School acted negligently in failing to protect him from this harassment and bullying.

The Rehabilitation Act applies to any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.  R.R.D. argued that the Rehabilitation Act applied here because the School received federal financial assistance in the form of a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.  The School argued that the PPP loans did not constitute federal financial assistance, and even if they did, the government forgave the School’s PPP loan before the alleged violations occurred.  The School spent all the federal assistance and then received the loan forgiveness letter.  It was only after the loan was forgiven that this alleged conduct occurred.  The Court concluded that the School could not continue to “accept” federal funds after spending all the approved funds and subsequently receiving a letter of forgiveness.

For R.R.D.’s claims under the ADA, the School argued that Title III of the ADA did not apply because they are a religious organization.  To determine whether a corporation is a religious organization, courts often look at the religious and secular characteristics and weigh them to determine whether the entity’s purpose and character are primarily religious.

The Court considered nine factors: (1) whether the entity operates for a profit; (2) whether it produces a secular product; (3) whether the entity’s articles of incorporation or other pertinent documents state a religious purpose; (4) whether it is owned, affiliated with or financially supported by a formally religious entity such as a church or synagogue; (5) whether a formally religious entity participates in the management, for instance by having representatives on the board of trustees; (6) whether the entity holds itself out to the public as secular or sectarian; (7) whether the entity regularly includes prayer or other forms of worship in its activities; (8) whether it includes religious instruction in its curriculum, to the extent it is an educational institution; and (9) whether its membership is made up by coreligionists.

Here, the Court considered that the School is a non-profit organization; with an expressly religious mission and curriculum; it is supported and directly supervised by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; and it requires students to participate in religious instruction and prayer.  The Court concluded that Title III did not apply to the School and dismissed R.R.D.’s ADA claims.

Finally, for R.R.D.’s negligence claim, R.R.D. argued that the School owed him a duty to be protected from harassment and bullying and that the School breached this duty by segregating him from his peers and allowing him to be harassed and bullied by administrators, teachers, and students.  R.R.D. argued that if the School did not act in this way, R.R.D. would not have been expelled.

The Court looked to the facts of the case and determined that there was no evidence that any school staff even knew about the issues between the two students until their fight, and R.R.D. even said that he told no one at the School about the threats or bullying.  R.R.D.’s father likewise did not make any complaints or requests to the School.  R.R.D. asked his guidance counselor to change lunch periods, but did not say why he was asking and students often asked to change their lunch periods to align with friends’ schedules.

Similarly, the Court found no evidence that R.R.D.’s accommodations played a role in the bullying, fight, or expulsion.  R.R.D. admitted that their fight was not related to his mask exemption or social distancing requirements.  The School expelled R.R.D. for violating its fighting policy, just as they did the other student, who had no mask exemption.

R.R.D. claimed that the School acted negligently by requiring him to socially distance and separating him in classes, but R.R.D. affirmatively requested that the School accommodate him through social distancing.  The Court found no evidence of teachers acting unreasonably in carrying out R.R.D.’s exemption.  In fact, the Court found that this strict enforcement of public health protocols could not be deemed negligence or harassment because it was done to protect students as recommended by public health officials.  The Court dismissed R.R.D.’s negligence claim and granted summary judgment in favor of the School.

Dipietro v. Archbishop Wood High Sch. (E.D.Pa. Jan. 16, 2024) 2024 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 8177.

Note: This case outlines the factors a court will consider when determining whether a religious school is subject to Article III of the ADA.  Regardless, however, religious schools should be aware that if they agree to provide accommodations in line with the ADA, courts will hold them to the same standard as non-religious schools.

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