Ropes & Gray’s offices. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)
A former Ropes & Gray associate and Harvard Law School grad who failed the bar exam twice can move ahead with parts of her federal lawsuit against the New York State Board of Law Examiners.
Tamara Wyche sued the board and its individual members in 2016, claiming the board’s denial of testing accommodations, which she received in law school, caused her to fail the attorney licensing exam and lose her lucrative associate job at Ropes & Gray.
U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie of the Eastern District of New York formally dismissed two of Wyche’s four claims—brought under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the New York City Human Rights Law—in a Sept. 25 opinion, although Wyche already had agreed to withdraw those claims.
But Dearie deferred ruling on her two remaining claims—alleged violations of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—in order to allow for discovery into whether they are barred under New York’s sovereign immunity.
“We are confident that the law is on our side,” said attorney Jo Anne Simon, who is representing Wyche. “I think this case sends a message. The New York State Board of Law Examiners knows full well what their federal obligations are. I hope this produces some reflection on the board so these things don’t happen again.”
Dearie also granted Wyche’s request to seal certain filings in an effort to protect her privacy, as well as her request to be identified only by her initials in court documents—a move the state opposed. As of Thursday, the plaintiff’s name appeared on earlier electronic court documents.
Board executive director John McAlary did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, but has said previously that the agency receives hundreds of test accommodation requests annually and closely reviews each one.
According to her initial complaint, filed under her full name, Wyche was diagnosed with anxiety and depression as a first-year student at Harvard Law School. She also experienced memory problems and cognitive difficulties as the result of several head injuries. While at Harvard, she was granted 50 percent additional time on tests, a separate testing room, and extra break time, at the recommendation of her doctor.
She asked for those same accommodations on the July 2013 New York bar exam, but was given only extra break time and a smaller testing room that was not entirely private. She alleges that she had a panic attack during the exam, and that she subsequently failed. Wyche claimed that her exam failure damaged her reputation at Ropes & Gray, where she had begun working as an associate.
She again failed the 2014 July bar exam, having received 50 percent extra time and a smaller testing room, but no extra breaks. Ropes & Gray then terminated her employment.
Wyche passed the February 2015 bar exam after receiving double time to complete the exam, but the damage had been done, Simon said.
“Once you are in a big, white-shoe law firm and you’re forced to leave, you are out of sync,” Simon said. “The likelihood of getting another job at a big firm is slim to none. This has really derailed her career.”
Wyche has since been working in temporary attorney and independent contracting positions, according to Simon.
In order to proceed with her remaining claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, Wyche will have to prove that the Board of Bar Examiners accepted federal funds between January 2013 and the present. Accepting federal financial assistance could cause the board to waive its sovereign immunity, Dearie wrote in his opinion.
However, the board claims that it does not receive federal funds and that its operations are financed solely through registration fees paid by New York attorneys.
A federal court found in 1998 that the board had in fact received federal funds in the past through a voucher program, and Wyche alleges that it still does though a program whereby the federal government pays the bar exam fees for veterans.
Wyche is seeking compensatory damages and a requirement that the board “take affirmative steps to alleviate the ongoing repercussions of the discriminatory test administration that continue to hamper plaintiff’s search for employment.”