A decorated U.S. Army veteran has sued the Florida Supreme Court and the Florida Board of Bar Examiners under the Americans with Disabilities Act, seeking an end to demands for detailed medical documentation of bar applicants’ mental health history and additional psychiatric examinations based on a history of disability.
The attorney for former U.S. Army Company Commander Julius Hobbs argues that investigations based on psychiatric counseling history prevent people from seeking help, and instead says investigations should be prompted by negative behaviors that demonstrate unfitness to practice law.
“Our initial goal is to have them stop requesting documentation and information involving history of mental health or treatment of substance abuse,” said Hobbs’ attorney Matthew Dietz, director of the Disability Independence Group. “If a person has voluntarily sought help, that is something that should be encouraged—not create additional barriers to becoming a lawyer.”
The lawsuit also asks the court to find the investigative costs and risk of conditional admission discriminatory, and award compensatory damages and attorneys fees.
Hobbs, who according to the complaint maintains a 3.63 grade point average at Western Michigan University Cooley School of Law in Tampa, Florida, applied to the Florida Bar his first year of law school in 2016. The bar recommends applicants apply as first-year law students so that they pay less on the application, avoid background check delays to admission, and are eligible to participate in certified legal internship programs. He is scheduled to graduate in May 2019.
Hobbs, whose national security secret level clearance was renewed in 2011, spent 37 months in combat zones, led a platoon in Iraq, planned missions for a team in Afghanistan and worked with other government agencies in countering improvised explosive devices. He led and trained 175 soldiers for combat in Afghanistan. His numerous medals and commendations include three bronze stars. After 10 years of service, Hobbs separated from the military while seeking custody of his son.
As a result of three tours of duty, Hobbs lives with adjustment disorders with mixed anxiety, depressed mood and alcohol use disorder, according to the complaint.
Hobbs had misdemeanor DUIs in 2006 and 2012, and a severe depressive episode in 2015 after dealing with the drop in military income and a relationship breakup during the custody lawsuit over his son. To cope with his experiences in the military and later the transitions back home, he received a few sessions of counseling in 2012 suggested by his commanders, and he later sought nine psychotherapy sessions in 2015 on his own with a Veterans Affairs psychologist.
“He really helped me develop coping mechanisms, move on and get to where I needed to be,” said Hobbs, who admits to having cried daily over a three-week period back then.
The Florida Bar application asks applicants whether they have suffered or been treated for mental illness within the past five years, and separately whether they currently have a mental health condition that could limit their ability to practice law. Hobbs said he answered truthfully about his treatment, and said that his condition did not limit his ability to practice law. According to the compliant, applicants who answer yes to either question are set aside for additional scrutiny and may be required to enter a consent agreement with requirements that could include monitoring, random substance screenings, required mental health counseling with quarterly reports to the bar and prohibitions on drinking alcohol.
Although Hobbs’ VA doctor wrote two letters to the Board of Bar Examiners in support of his eligibility to apply to the bar, the board in May requested biological drug and alcohol screenings and an independent psychiatric evaluation at Hobbs’ expense.
“Unless it’s legitimate to question each lawyer on their annual dues cards whether they have any mental illness or substance problem, it’s similarly not permissible to ask them prior to them being admitted,” Dietz said. “The standards for lawyers entering the practice of law should be the same as those lawyers who are currently practicing. There’s no reason to have a higher standard for law students and applicants than lawyers.”
In the complaint, Dietz cites a 2016 American Bar Association survey that found 43 percent of law students reported binge drinking in the two weeks prior, and 42 percent of law students saying they needed help for poor mental health, but only half had sought it out.
Hobbs withdrew his application to the Florida Bar rather than be questioned by a mental health professional or the Board of Bar Examiners at his own expense. He wants to be a member of the Florida Bar when he finishes law school and passes the bar exam but doesn’t want to be subjected to increased scrutiny or be required to pay more money on account of his disability.
The suit, filed Sept. 20 in the Northern District of Florida Tallahassee Division against the Florida Supreme Court, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners and its executive director, Michele Gavagni, alleges one count each of violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
Gavagni did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Contact Monika Gonzalez Mesa at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @MonikaMesa1