Louisiana Supreme Court Settles With DOJ on Bar Candidates with Disabilities

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Summary: Louisiana Supreme Court agrees to pay $200,000 and agree to settlement terms to end federal investigation over discriminatory questions regarding mental health on bar applications.

Last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court settled a federal civil rights investigation alleging discriminatory mental health questions in applications to the state bar. In February, the U.S. Department of Justice had informed the Louisiana Supreme Court's committee on bar admissions and the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board that some of the questions in the bar applications violate the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The DOJ's issue was that during the Louisiana bar admissions process, licensing entities based recommendations about bar admission on mental health diagnosis and treatment rather than on conduct that would warrant denial of admission to the bar.

The DOJ said in a press release that the settlement agreement ensures the right of qualified bar applicants with mental health disabilities to have equal access to the legal profession as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The department reasoned that diagnosis and treatment unaccompanied by evidence of problematic conduct could not predict future misconduct as an attorney and did not justify restrictions on admissions to the bar.

Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Molly Moran, said the agreement "will ensure that qualified bar applicants with mental health disabilities are able to pursue their dream of becoming licensed attorneys, without discrimination based on diagnosis or treatment."

Under the agreement, the court will, among other actions:
  • Revise its character and fitness screening questions so that they focus on applicants' conduct or behavior, and ask about an applicant's condition or impairment only when it currently affects the applicant's ability to practice law in a competent, ethical and professional manner or is disclosed to explain conduct that may otherwise warrant denial of admission;

  • Refrain from imposing unnecessary burdens on applicants with mental health disabilities by placing onerous disability-based conditions on their admission, invading their privacy, or violating their confidentiality;

  • Re-evaluate prior and pending applications of applicants who disclosed mental health disabilities under the revised, non-discriminatory procedures set forth in the agreement; and

  • Pay $200,000 to compensate a number of affected bar applicants and attorneys.
According to the DOJ's statement, the department has also raised similar issues about unnecessary questions in bar applications with the states of Vermont and Connecticut and with the National Council of Bar Examiners. Earlier this year, the NCBE revised two of its questions regarding mental health of applicants.

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