Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Girl Scouts Are Covered By Federal Disability Discrimination Law

Barry Taylor  is the Vice President for Civil Rights and Systemic Litigation at Equip for Equality. We enthusiastically welcome a guest blog post on the recent Runnion v. Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana case. 

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently clarified that the Girl Scouts is subject to the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  (Rehab Act)  The Rehab Act prohibits entities that receive federal funding from discriminating based on disability.  

The plaintiff in this case is Megan Runnion, who joined the Girl Scouts when she was in kindergarten.  Megan is deaf and, for six years, the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana provided her with an American Sign Language interpreter for troop-related activities.  In 2011, however, the Girl Scouts refused to provide Megan with an interpreter, and shortly thereafter, Megan's troop disbanded.  Megan's mother was told by troop leaders that because of her request for interpreter services, certain restrictions were placed on the troop, making it impractical for the troop to continue.

Because the Girl Scouts receives federal funding, Megan filed suit under the Rehab Act.  The Complaint alleges that by failing to provide interpreter services, and thereby failing to provide Megan effective communication, the Girl Scouts excluded her from participation solely because of her disability.

The District Court dismissed the case finding that, as a private membership organization, Girl Scouts is not subject to the Rehab Act.  The District Court also found that Girl Scouts is not covered by the Rehab Act because it is not principally engaged in education, social services, health care, housing, or parks and recreation.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed finding that there was no basis in the Rehab Act to exclude from coverage private membership organizations like the Girl Scouts.  While other statutes like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act have provisions excluding private membership organizations, the Rehab Act does not contain an express exclusion.  The court was unwilling to read into the Rehab Act an implied exemption for private membership organizations.

The court went on to hold that the proposed Amended Complaint sufficiently alleged that Girl Scouts is principally engaged in the business of providing the enumerated services under the Rehab Act (i.e. education, social services, health care, housing, or parks and recreation.)  Significantly, the court held that, contrary to the Girl Scouts' argument, a private organization would fall within the Rehab Act if it principally engages in a mix of the enumerated services.  In other words, the court held that Congress did not view the categories as mutually exclusive.

While this case is important with respect to coverage under the Rehab Act, the case also provides useful guidance on the right to amend under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15.  The court confirmed that courts should take a liberal approach to amending pleadings with respect to post-judgment motions to amend.  The court made clear that, despite the 2009 amendment of Rule 15(a)(1) which limited amendment as a matter of right, plaintiffs still have the benefit of the well-established liberal standard for amendment even if they choose to first challenge a motion to dismiss before seeking to amend.

Megan is represented by Equip for Equality, the National Association of the Deaf and the private law firm Much Shelist, which is handling the case on a pro bono basis.  The United States Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in support of Megan's position that was cited favorably by the court.

Megan Runnion v. Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, No. 14-1729 (7th Cir. May 8, 2015)



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