News Stream

Veteran’s challenge of mental health questions on license application may proceed, court rules

A federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a first-year law student against the state bar of Florida claiming that its mental health evaluation process for bar applicants violated two federal statutes: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Hobbs vs. Florida Board of Bar Examiners) .

The applicant’s ADA claims presented legitimate questions, the judge held June 16, and the question of whether the state had waived liability to suit under the Rehabilitation Act had not been adequately answered.

When Julius Hobbs, a first-year law student and military veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, went to fill out an early-application form for Florida Bar applicants, he found that the application contains a question asking whether the applicant has been treated for mental health or substance abuse disorders within the last five years.

Hobbs, who had recently been treated for anxiety, depression, and alcohol abuse, answered yes, and supplied a letter from a doctor stating that Hobbs’s problems would not be a detriment to a career as an attorney.

In response to Hobbs’s affirmative answer, the board asked for copies of his complete medical records and required him to undergo both a physical and mental evaluation, the costs of which—up to $5,000, Hobbs was told—he would have to pay himself. Hobbs declined to follow through with the process and withdrew his application, intending to apply again after graduation.

He then brought a lawsuit in federal court against both the board and the Florida Supreme Court, alleging that the mental health evaluation process violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Rehabilitation Act.

In response to Hobbs’s claims, the board claimed immunity from suit under the Rehabilitation Act, asserting the Eleventh Amendment, which prohibits suits by citizens against the states unless the state has waived immunity or the suit alleges a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The Rehabilitation Act requires that the agency being sued be the recipient of federal funds, a status that includes a waiver.

Judge Robert Hinkle of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee wrote the decision. He noted that although the board, itself, does not receive any federal funds, it is part of the same state governmental department as the Florida Supreme Court, which Hobbs claimed did receive such funds.

In addition, because the board had not presented a factual challenge to Hobbs’s assertion about the Court receiving federal funds, Judge Hinkle had to assume the truth of the claim for purposes of the board’s motion for summary judgment. Thus, the claim could not be dismissed, and the question of whether the Court received federal funding would have to be argued.

Judge Hinkle also rejected the board’s motion to dismiss Hobbs’s ADA claim, stating that the complaint “plausibly alleges that the scope of the evaluation the Board demanded was not reasonably related to Mr. Hobbs’s fitness to practice

law” and that there was no way to know, based only on the allegation, whether the ADA had been violated.