The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this week the dismissal of a family's lawsuit against the Palo Alto school district that alleges the district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when a teacher allegedly divulged that their son carries a genetic marker for cystic fibrosis.
The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the District Court.
Parents James and Jennifer Chadam appealed a district court order granting the school district's motion to dismiss their complaint. The Court of Appeals sent two of the family's claims that had been dismissed — that the district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, that guarantees certain rights to people with disabilities — back for review but agreed with the district court on two others, that the district violated the former student's First Amendment rights and was negligent.
The Chadams allege that the school district removed their son Colman from his neighborhood school because they believed he had cystic fibrosis, though his parents say that he has the marker for it, not the disease.
But because Colman carries the genetic marker, and that information was made public to the family of two other students who actively have the disease, the school district forced Colman to leave Jordan Middle School involuntarily after the parents of the other two students complained, according to court records.
The Chadam's complaint "adequately alleges" a violation of the ADA, the Court of Appeals wrote in a memorandum filed Tuesday, because Colman "(1) was perceived as disabled, (2) has a right to attend the closest PAUSD school to his house per PAUSD policy, (3) was excluded from receiving the benefit of that policy because PAUSD deliberately removed him from his neighborhood school, and (4) the exclusion was due to his perceived disability."
This determination was contrary to that of the district court, which conducted a "direct threat" analysis to indicate that the district acted to protect the health and safety of the school. The Court of Appeals notes that the Chadam's complaint alleges the school district did not individually assess Colman "based on reasonable judgment that relies on current medical knowledge or on the best available objective evidence" in the name of safety — requirements for the "direct threat" defense — but instead relied on the opinion of two doctors who had never met or treated their son to determine that he should be transferred out of the school.
"The complaint negates the 'reasonable judgment' and the 'best available objective evidence' standards by alleging that (Colman's) medical records show that he does not have cystic fibrosis," the Court of Appeals wrote. "Accordingly, the alleged facts do not establish a 'direct threat' defense."
The district court also "erred," the Court of Appeals' memorandum states, in concluding that the Chadams failed to provide sufficient facts that would show any discriminatory intent. It was sufficient, the district court wrote, to allege that the district excluded Colman from a public program because of his perceived disability.
The appeals court also rejected the district's argument that it did not deny Colman a "benefit" because there is no "right" to attend a particular school within Palo Alto Unified, noting that a person who has or is perceived to have a disability cannot be excluded from or denied benefits of the services or programs of a public entity.
The Court of Appeals supported the district court's dismissal of the First Amendment and negligence claims.
The Chadam's case, which has attracted some national attention for its potential DNA-privacy implications, has wound its way through the legal system since 2013, when they filed a federal lawsuit to recoup legal fees they had incurred and for unspecified damages.