A federal judge has blocked the Indiana State Board of Law Examiners from digging further into the mental health of class-action plaintiffs who are suing over certain questions on the state’s bar admission application.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Pratt affirmed on Dec. 23 a magistrate’s order prohibiting the board from conducting further discovery about the plaintiffs, whose 2009 lawsuit alleges that questions on the application related to applicants’ mental health violate federal disability law.
“Simply stated, the court finds that the magistrate judge’s decisions were neither clearly erroneous nor contrary to law,” wrote Pratt, who presides in the Southern District of Indiana.
Pratt ruled that the board of law examiners could not take additional discovery pertaining to the mental health of five anonymous plaintiffs who are members of the ACLU Indiana University School of Law Indianapolis Chapter. Those plaintiffs submitted affidavits last year stating that they planned to apply for admission to the bar, planned to affirmatively answer a question on the application asking whether they had been treated for mental or emotional problems, and did not believe that their mental health history impeded their ability to practice law. The plaintiffs submitted the affidavits to bolster the ACLU student chapter’s argument that it had standing to serve as a class representative in the case.
In January 2010, the magistrate judge granted class status to name plaintiff Amanda Perdue and in March found that the ACLU student chapter had standing. The court determined that the class equaled about 95 individuals each year among the roughly 600 who annually apply for bar admission in Indiana.
Pratt also upheld the magistrate judge’s determination that Perdue was not required to answer interrogatories and provide documents pertaining to her mental health history.
The case mirrors actions in other states that have challenged questions about mental health on professional license applications. Challenges have resulted in the removal or modification of similar questions in Maine, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Jon Laramore, president of the Indiana State Board of Law Examiners, said that the questions are necessary to help ensure the fitness and character of attorneys licensed in Indiana.
“It’s important for the board to understand all aspects of an applicant’s situation, to know whether an applicant meets our fitness standard,” Laramore said. “We don’t want to be any more intrusive than we have to be to get that information.”
ACLU of Indiana attorney Kenneth Falk, who represents the plaintiffs, said that Indiana’s questions about mental health are the broadest in the country.”The issue is whether someone has the current character and fitness to practice law,” Falk said. “These questions ask whether someone has seen a mental health counselor [at any time] since the age of 16. That’s too broad an inquiry.”
Perdue sued the Indiana law examiners in July 2009 after she sought admission to the state bar. She was previously diagnosed with and received treatment for an anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. She answered “yes” to the application questions that, among other things, asked whether she had been treated “for any mental, emotional or nervous disorders” at any time from age 16 to the present.
Because of her answers, the board of law examiners, as part of its usual procedure for applicants who respond affirmatively, requested additional information about her mental health. It then referred her to the Indiana Supreme Court Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program—also standard procedure. Instead of consenting, Perdue withdrew her application and, with the ACLU, sued to prevent the board from inquiring about the mental health of bar applicants.
The suit alleges that the questions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. It claims that applicants who answer affirmatively are subjected to elevated burdens solely because of their histories of mental, emotional or nervous disorders. The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment, an injunction removing the questions and costs.Representing the Indiana State Board of Law Examiners is Anthony Overholt, counsel at Frost Brown Todd.
Leigh Jones can be contacted at email@example.com.