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Ninth Circuit Rejects Student's Discrimination Action Against Medical School, Finds Student Was Not Disabled


HLD, v. 32, n. 11 (November 2004)

Ninth Circuit Rejects Student's Discrimination Action Against Medical School, Finds Student Was Not Disabled

Andrew H.K. Wong was identified at a young age as suffering from a learning impairment, although he still managed to achieve significant academic success. Wong took the medical college admissions test four times and was eventually able to gain admission to the University of California medical school at Davis (University). Wong completed his first two years, but his performance dropped off in his third year. A University disability resource center diagnosed him as having a learning impairment that limited his ability to process and communicate information. The medical school eventually dismissed Wong for failing to meet academic requirements.

Wong sued the University for discrimination under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. According to Wong, the University failed to accommodate his learning disability. The district court granted summary judgment to the University, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding Wong had raised triable issues of fact. On remand, the district court again granted summary judgment to the University, finding Wong failed to establish that he was disabled. Wong appealed, arguing the district court erred in refusing to allow the testimony of two expert witnesses on the issue of Wong's disability status and in holding he failed to establish a triable issue of material fact that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The appeals court held the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding Wong's expert witnesses for failing to identify them earlier. The appeals court rejected Wong's contention that he could not have reasonably anticipated the need for the expert witnesses because he did not know until the University moved for summary judgment that it would challenge his disability status. Although the University did not contest Wong's disability status in its previous summary judgment motion, that did not amount to a permanent waiver of that issue. The appeals court noted that proving disability is one of the essential elements of a prima facie disability discrimination case and it was not unfair for the district court to expect Wong to do so.

Next, the appeals court upheld the district court's conclusion that Wong was not "disabled" within the meaning of the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act. A court must answer three questions to determine the disability issue: (1) whether the condition constituted a physical or mental impairment, (2) whether it affected a major life activity, and (3) whether it substantially limited the major life activity.

The appeals court noted no real dispute as to the first or second inquiries. Wong had an impairment as diagnosed by the University that affected the major life activities of reading, learning, and working. But, as to the third element, the appeals court agreed with the district court's conclusion that Wong's impairment did not substantially limit him in a major life activity. The appeals court found that Wong failed to adequately show he was substantially limited in the specified major life activities for purposes of daily living, or as compared to what is important in the daily life of most people. Among other things, the appeals court pointed to the substantial academic success Wong had achieved without accommodation. Thus, the appeals court affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the University.

Wong v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., No. 01-17432 (9th Cir. Aug. 19, 2004). To read the case, go to$file/0117432.pdf?openelement

Health Lawyers thanks Michael D. Roth, of the Law Offices of Michael Dundon Roth, in Los Angeles, California, for sending us this decision.

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