Court Finds Track Athlete’s Accommodation Requests Were Unreasonable

A.H., a senior at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, was a member of the school’s track and field team despite his physical limitations from spastic quadriplegia related to cerebral palsy. During his junior year, he requested that the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) create a separate division with different time standards for para-ambulatory runners in the Sectional and State championship track meets, as well as the annual 5K Road Race. The IHSA denied these requests, and A.H. filed this suit seeking injunctive relief under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the IHSA, finding that A.H.’s requests were not reasonable accommodations under the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Rehabilitation Act and the ADA provide expansive protections from discrimination for individuals with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides that no disabled individuals “shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance….”  Title III of the ADA contains a specific provision imposing a duty to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled individuals.

According to the appellate court, disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA can be established in three different ways: (1) the defendant intentionally acted on the basis of the disability, (2) the defendant refused to provide a reasonable modification, or (3) the defendant’s rule disproportionally impacts disabled people.  Such claims also have a causation requirement, in which a plaintiff must show that “but for his disability, he would have been able to access the services or benefits desired.”

In this case, A.H. wanted the IHSA to establish different qualifying times for para-ambulatory runners that would allow him to qualify for State. Thus, in order to establish causation, A.H. had to prove that but-for his physical disability, the normal operation of the qualifying times would have allowed him to qualify for State.  A.H. did not meet that standard.

The Court observed that the IHSA qualifying time standards are designed to make the individual races extremely competitive, excluding able-bodied and disabled runners alike, leaving 90% of all runners from participating at State every year. The qualifying times ensure that the State championship meet is reserved for the best and fastest runners in Illinois. There is no reason to believe that disabled runners like A.H. have been unable to attain these qualifying times for State simply “by reason of” or “on the basis of” their disability. The odds are overwhelming that runners like A.H. would not meet the qualifying times even if they were not disabled.

In addition, the requested accommodation of establishing a separate para-ambulatory division was not a reasonable accommodation.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that lowering particular eligibility or qualifying requirements established by an entity can be substantial modifications that are unreasonable.  Thus, the Court here determined that to lower the qualifying times for State by creating a new division of runners would fundamentally alter the essential nature of the Sectional and State track and field meets, as well as the Road Race. The Rehabilitation Act and the ADA do not require the IHSA to alter the fundamental nature of their track and field events. Therefore, A.H.’s accommodation requests are unreasonable as a matter of law.

The Court stated:  “A.H. currently has the opportunity to compete in the Sectionals meet in order to qualify for State, as well as an opportunity to compete for a medal in the Road Race. The IHSA guarantees A.H. this equality of opportunity, and by all accounts, A.H., his teammates, and coaches have benefitted tremendously from his participation on the track and field team. However, the IHSA is not required under federal law to guarantee A.H. the results he desires from those opportunities.”

A.H. v. Illinois High Sch. Ass’n, No. 17-2456, 2018 WL 671741, at *6 (7th Cir. Feb. 2, 2018)

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