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U.S. Court of Appeals: Applicant who won test accommodations loses bid for legal costs

First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in a December 11 decision, overturned a decision by a federal circuit court to award attorneys' fee to a license applicant who had successfully obtained a temporary restraining order requiring the board to provide him with disability accommodations.

(Sinapi v. Rhode Island Board of Bar Examiners).

Anthony Sinapi has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a condition for which he received accommodations—in the form of extra time to take exams and a distraction-free environment in which to do so—in college and law school. When he sought similar accommodations of 50% more time and a quiet room to take the Rhode Island bar exam, the Board of Bar Examiners denied his requests after submitting his medical paperwork to an impartial medical examiner. Sinapi filed an emergency petition with the Rhode Island Supreme Court, but the court upheld the denial.

Sinapi then filed suit in federal court, seeking monetary damages and reduced versions of his accommodation requests. The judge hearing the case granted Sinapi’s request for a temporary restraining order requiring the board to provide accommodations for the upcoming exam, which was scheduled to take place the day after the order was issued.

The court held that Sinapi was likely to succeed on the merits of his case, and that, because he was registered to take the multi-state portion of the test in Rhode Island, a denial of his accommodations request would negatively impact his performance in Massachusetts, where the board had granted his accommodation requests after he had also applied to take the bar. Sinapi took the test as scheduled.

The next month, the Rhode Island board filed for a dismissal of the case. Sinapi declined to reply to the motion for dismissal and the district court granted it, rejecting Sinapi’s monetary claims and noting that the question of accommodations was moot now that Sinapi had completed the test. However, Sinapi successfully filed for and received $20,000 in legal fees and costs, based on his success in obtaining the restraining order, under a section of the Americans with Disabilities Act that allows prevailing litigants to recover expenses.

The board appealed that costs award and the case went up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which issued a decision in the board’s favor.

The circuit court judges did not agree that Sinapi was entitled to legal costs. Although he had successfully obtained the temporary restraining order, which allowed him to sit for the exam, because Sinapi had not followed through to obtain a final decision on the substance of his accommodations claim, he could not be termed a “prevailing party” because the quickly-decided restraining order had not required the district court to make a thorough examination of the merits of his case.

“Since the substance of Sinapi’s claim for injunctive relief was never addressed in any depth, despite the Board’s vigorous argument that the claim was fatally flawed, and no merits-based decision ever entered in his favor,” Judge Michael Ponsor wrote for the court, “Sinapi never achieved prevailing party status, and the award of fees was unsupported.”

Judge Posnor wrote that, although the board had opposed Sinapi’s claims, it “never received in-depth assessment of its substantive arguments. It would be unfair to deem Sinapi a ‘prevailing’ party in these circumstances and slap the Board with a fee bill based on a finding it never received a fair opportunity to contest on a properly developed record.”

Sinapi had cross-appealed the lower court’s rejection of his monetary damages claim, but the circuit court found in favor of the board on that issue as well. The board, the court explained, is a state agency and protected from suit by the Eleventh Amendment’s prohibition on suits against the states.

While the board would be vulnerable to a claimed violation of the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection guarantees, Sinapi’s claims against the board did not rise to the level of constitutional violations. Thus the board was immune from claims of monetary damages.

Additionally, the monetary claims against individual board members were invalid, as the members were protected by quasi-judicial immunity, which protects officials who are acting as adjudicators in administrative cases from litigation by losing parties.

“Few people would serve on the Board knowing that any negative accommodation decision would likely trigger a lawsuit aimed at their personal checking accounts,” wrote Judge Ponsor. “Even if someone had the brass to join the Board in these circumstances, denials of accommodations, however well founded, would likely be few and reluctant. Quasi-judicial protection is simply essential if the Board is to function objectively.”