Julius Hobbs, a law student and decorated combat veteran of the U.S. Army, has received the green light from a federal judge to proceed with a suit against the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, which handles bar admissions.
Hobbs, who left the armed service with the rank of captain, claimed the state’s court licensing board has used his history of mental illness against him, forcing him to undergo additional screening by the bar’s psychiatry experts, despite records from his treating physician indicating he’s fit to practice law. He disclosed his medical history in response to two questions on the bar admissions form asking about mental illness and treatment over the past years — questions he now challenges in court, along with the board’s follow-up process for applicants who answer in the affirmative.
“They’re putting up additional barriers,” said Hobbs’ lawyer Matthew Dietz, litigation director of Disability Independence Group Inc. in Miami. “They shouldn’t be in a position to do so.”
Hobbs, a second-year student at Western Michigan University Cooley School of Law in Tampa, is set to graduate in May 2019. He applied early for admission to the Florida Bar, like many first-year students, to qualify for certified legal internship programs, pay less on the application and avoid delays on background checks during admission. But he claims the admissions process could cost him up to $3,500 more than his peers, after the board required additional assessments by doctors it selected.
“It’s not acceptable, and it’s humiliating,” Dietz said. “He should not be held to a different standard, … and that’s the problem. That’s why we’re suing.They don’t get to second guess his own treating doctors on his mental health.”
Hobbs is a military veteran who served 10 years in the U.S. Army, including three tours of combat duty in Afghanistan and Iraq over 37 months. He said he reached out to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for medical assistance after he left the military. His personal relationship had ended unexpectedly, leaving Hobbs with a child custody battle. He said he worried when he found himself drinking heavily and struggling with anxiety and depression.
He had two arrests for driving drunk in 2006 and 2012.
“I had all these stressors that hit me at one time. … I didn’t know what was going on, or how to deal with it,” Hobbs said. “It took a toll on me to the point that it was out of hand. I went to get help from a doctor. … I told him I could be watching a comedy and all of a sudden I’d break down crying for no reason. He said, ‘That’s a symptom of your depression, your adjustment disorder.’”
Hobbs said he underwent psychotherapy for five months with a doctor who diagnosed him with mild alcohol-use disorder and adjustment disorder with depression. He has since thrived in law school, where he had a 3.63 grade point average, according to his complaint. He says he maintains contact with his doctor, and is fit and able to pursue a law career, despite its reputation as a stressful profession prone to triggering mental illness.
“I had 10 years in the Army,” said Hobbs, whose complaint states he won the Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal, among others, while on military duty. ”I performed well in the Army for 10 years, which is another high-stress environment.”
Hobbs filed suit in federal court against the board, its executive director Michele Gavagni in her official capacity, and the Florida Supreme Court, which creates the rules governing bar admission. He asserted claims under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
James J. Dean, the Tallahassee attorney from Messer Caparello representing the board and Gavagni, did not respond to requests for comment. But in court pleadings, the defendants moved to dismiss on several jurisdictional grounds. They argued lack of standing, ripeness and mootness, failure to state a claim for relief under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and immunity under the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“It is the applicant’s responsibility to demonstrate that he satisfies the character and fitness requirements,” Dean wrote in the motion to dismiss. “The Bar Admission Rules set forth, with specificity, the ‘essential eligibility requirements’ that must be satisfied.”
As for questions No. 25 and 26, which ask about mental illness, the board said the high court “regularly admits applicants with a history of both mental disorders and treatment by mental health professionals, and encourages applicants to seek mental health treatment when necessary.” It said it required additional screening because “it is dangerous to rely on the patient for an objective assessment of the appropriateness of their substance use.”
U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle in Tallahassee dismissed the claims against the Florida Supreme Court for lack of standing, but denied the motion to throw out the suit against the board and its executive director — leaving the remaining parties to prove their case.
“The board may believe that a patient’s own treating professional may be unduly supportive of the patient, or even that a Veterans Administration professional may be unduly supportive of a veteran,” Hinkle wrote. “But one might also believe that a professional who routinely accepts referrals from the board may be overly demanding of an applicant with a disability. One cannot know, based on the allegations of this complaint, whether the board violated the ADA. 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.”
Read the ruling:
Read the motion to dismiss by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners: