In a sweeping settlement reached on August 14, 2014, the United States Department of Justice and the Louisiana Supreme Court put an end to the Department’s three-year investigation into Louisiana’s questionable treatment of lawyers and bar applicants with mental disabilities. See Settlement Agreement Between the United States of America and the Louisiana Supreme Court Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (Aug. 14, 2014). The DOJ had alleged that the court’s procedures for evaluating bar applicants unlawfully discriminated against those with mental health disabilities and, therefore, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). More particularly, the DOJ alleged that the court unfairly imposed onerous admissions prerequisites on applicants who revealed a mental health diagnosis. Some of these prerequisites included intrusive background investigations and conditional admission for applicants who had no history of committing misconduct or criminal activity. Under the settlement, the court’s character and fitness review of an applicant must now focus principally on the applicant’s past conduct rather than on the applicant’s condition. Among other things, the settlement agreement:
- Permits the court to ask bar applicants only about “conduct” that resulted in some sort of adverse action against the applicant or in harm to others, such as “an arrest, discipline, sanction or warning,” a “termination or suspension from school or employment,” or the suspension of “any license.”
- Prohibits the court from imposing “conditional admission solely on the basis of mental health diagnosis or treatment.”
- Permits conditional admission for applicants with a mental health diagnosis only when “the applicant has a history of conduct that would otherwise warrant denial of admission” or the applicant’s condition “currently impairs the ability to practice law in a competent, ethical, or professional manner.”
- Prohibits the court from imposing reporting requirements on the employers of conditionally-admitted lawyers with a mental health diagnosis.
- Requires the court to reconsider the need for the continued conditional admission of lawyers who disclosed mental-health issues on bar applications submitted since August 1, 2008.
- Requires the court to pay $200,000 in compensation to seven “Affected Individuals” aggrieved by the court’s past discriminatory bar admissions practices.
This settlement will implement welcome—and long overdue—changes to Louisiana’s bar admissions process.
Update: The DOJ’s press release is here.