867 F.Supp. 1050 (D.D.C. 1994), Civ. A. 94-1608, Lane v. Pena

Docket Nº:Civ. A. 94-1608
Citation:867 F.Supp. 1050
Party Name:Lane v. Pena
Case Date:October 26, 1994
Court:United States District Courts, District of Columbia
 
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Page 1050

867 F.Supp. 1050 (D.D.C. 1994)

James Griffin LANE, Plaintiff,

v.

Federico PENA, et al., Defendants.

Civ. A. No. 94-1608.

United States District Court, District of Columbia.

Oct. 26, 1994

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Walter A. Smith, Jr., Daniel B. Kohrman, Timothy J. Carlson, and Mitchell E. Zamoff, of Hogan & Hartson, Washington, DC of counsel: Arthur B. Spitzer, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nat. Capital Area, Washington, DC for plaintiff.

Frank W. Hunger, Asst. Atty. Gen., Eric H. Holder, Jr., U.S. Atty., Brian G. Kennedy and Patricia M. Russotto, of Dept. of Justice Civ. Div. Federal Programs Branch, Washington, DC for defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CHARLES R. RICHEY, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Before the Court in the above-captioned case are the parties' cross-Motions for Summary Judgment, as well as their oppositions and replies thereto. This case was originally filed as a preliminary injunction. On July 28, 1994 the Court held a hearing and issued an Order on August 1, 1994 which, with the parties' consent, consolidated a hearing on the Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction with a final determination on the merits of the case, pursuant to Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The parties informed the Court that there would be no dispute as to material facts and that the matter could be resolved through cross-motions for summary judgment. On September 29, 1994, the Court held a hearing on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.

The Plaintiff filed a preliminary injunction seeking reinstatement to the United States Merchant Marine Academy ("USMMA" or "Academy"). He was admitted to the Academy in July of 1991. Thereafter he developed diabetes but managed to complete his first year. In September of 1992, the Academy informed him that he would be disenrolled due to his medical condition. The Plaintiff argues that the Defendants' actions violate both the Maritime Education and Training Act of 1980, 46 App. U.S.C. § 1295 ("META"), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 et seq. ("Section 504"). In his motion, the Plaintiff seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction requiring the Academy to reinstate Lane immediately, compensatory damages, including out-of-pocket costs, loss of professional opportunity, and pain and suffering, attorneys' fees, and costs.

The Defendants argue, in sum, that the META imposes on USMMA graduates an obligation to serve in an armed forces reserve unit upon graduation as a condition of receiving an education at the Academy. The Defendants contend that the Plaintiff cannot satisfy his reserve service obligation because he has insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus

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and, therefore, does not meet the physical standards established by the Department of Defense for a commission in the armed forces reserve. According to the Defendants, the Plaintiff cannot satisfy an essential statutory requirement as a condition of attending the Academy and, therefore, he cannot be considered an "otherwise qualified person with a disability" for purposes of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Defendants further argue that the agency's interpretation of the statute warrants due deference by the Court, and assert sovereign immunity with respect to damages.

Alternatively, the Plaintiff argues, in sum, that the META nowhere authorizes the per se exclusion of a student simply because he has a medical condition which precludes admission into the naval reserve, when that same condition in no way limits the student's ability to serve in the merchant marine. 1 He further argues that the META mandates only that students qualify for a merchant marine license--not that they also qualify to serve in the naval reserve--and contends that he is eligible for a merchant marine license. Moreover, the Plaintiff maintains that the Court need not afford the agency deference because it has not consistently followed their alleged practice of disenrolling cadets who fail to meet the requirements for a naval reserve commission, and because the plain language of the META demonstrates that no such practice is required. Finally, the Plaintiff asserts that Section 504 was also violated because he was denied the opportunity to complete his education at a federally funded academic institution solely because he developed a disability.

Upon careful consideration of the papers filed by both parties for dispositive relief, the oral arguments of counsel, the applicable law, and the entire record in this case, the Court has determined that the Plaintiff's Motion shall be granted, and the Defendants' Motion shall be denied.

The Court finds that the Defendants violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by disenrolling Lane solely on the basis of his diabetes and without making any attempt to reasonably accommodate his disability. The Stipulated Facts reveal that James Griffin Lane has repeatedly achieved an "outstanding" rating on the physical readiness exam administered by the Academy, that it is undisputed that James Griffin Lane may qualify for a merchant marine license if he maintains control of his diabetes, that his physician has reported that his diabetes mellitus is under "extremely good control," and that the Academy has allowed students in the past with a lost limb, a lost eye, brain damage, and color blindness to remain at the Academy and graduate despite their disabilities. Nevertheless, the Defendants now refuse to acknowledge that the Rehabilitation Act requires any reasonable accommodation--or even an attempt to provide reasonable accommodation--of Lane's diabetes mellitus. The Court simply cannot accept this untenable reading of the Rehabilitation Act. The Court thus finds that the Defendants have not shown that Lane has failed to meet an essential program requirement under Section 504 or, critically, that the Academy would suffer undue hardship by reasonably accommodating the diabetes mellitus of this otherwise extremely well qualified cadet.

The Defendants argue that the META dictated their disenrollment of Lane. However, the Court further finds that the plain language of the META does no such thing. Neither the statute, the regulations promulgated thereunder, nor the agency's inconsistent practices support the Defendants' position that the Academy was obliged to disenroll Lane upon discovery of his diabetes mellitus. The Court finds that, despite the Defendants' assertions to the contrary, the META contains no requirement that cadets such as Lane meet all physical requirements for a commission in the armed forces reserve or suffer unconditional expulsion from the Academy. Moreover, the Court finds that the agency's reading of the META does not warrant due deference because it is contradicted by the plain language of the statute,

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and because the USMMA has acted inconsistently with respect to Lane and other disabled students.

Accordingly, the Court shall order the United States Merchant Marine Academy to reinstate forthwith Plaintiff James Griffin Lane as a student at the USMMA, and shall require the Defendants to take all steps necessary to permit Lane to resume his maritime training as soon as practicable. Finally, the Court finds that the Plaintiff is entitled to compensatory damages for his injuries.

As a result of the Court's findings, judgment must be entered in favor of the Plaintiff. The Court shall issue an Order of even date herewith consistent with this Memorandum Opinion.

BACKGROUND 2

In 1990, the Plaintiff, James Griffin Lane, applied for an appointment to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, a federal service academy that trains men and women to serve as commercial merchant marine officers and as commissioned officers in the United States armed forces. 3 As a condition of his appointment, the Plaintiff was required to undergo a physical examination to determine if he met the requisite physical qualifications. On November 29, 1990, the Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board ("DODMERB") administered the examination. Two days earlier, the Plaintiff had submitted a medical history form which asked whether he had at any time "blood, protein, or sugar in urine;" to this, he answered "no." The results of a urinalysis test administered later by DODMERB were "negative" for sugar in the urine.

On June 4, 1991, DODMERB stamped on the Plaintiff's medical evaluation form that he was "medically qualified" and "recommended for service academies and ROTC programs," and the Plaintiff entered the Academy the next month.

On February 1, 1991, Lane consulted a private family physician and reported excessive thirst and hunger. A test showed he had an elevated blood sugar level, and the doctor directed the Plaintiff to limit his intake of calories and take an oral hypoglycemic medication to reduce his blood sugar level. Over a period of seven weeks, Lane's blood sugar level fluctuated between the normal range and higher. In September or October of that year, the Plaintiff had the flu and began to lose weight and again experience excessive thirst and hunger. In December 1991, the Plaintiff was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus by Dr. Didace Kabatsi, a private endocrinologist, who performed several tests on blood and urine samples.

On February 11, 1992, Lane visited Dr. Daniel Kalash, Chief Medical Officer at the Academy, who recorded in his notes that the Plaintiff advised that he had an "intermittent history during [the] past several months of glycosuria [sugar in the urine] and [elevated] blood sugar" and that he had been treated for his condition. He further recorded that the Plaintiff reported he was monitoring his "blood sugar in [his] barracks" and that "all findings [were] normal." Finally, he made the following notes: "Assess: Early Diabetes type I" and "Capt. Bauer notified & communicated problem to BuMed." At that...

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