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CLASS v. TOWSON UNIV., NO. 15-1811

Decided: November 13, 2015

The Fourth Circuit reversed and vacated the injunction.

Gavin Class (“Class”), who had been a member of the Towson University (“Towson”) football team, suffered heatstroke during practice, which resulted in numerous surgeries and a long recovery time. Although Class wanted to return to play football, he was unable to receive clearance from the Team Physician under the “Return-To-Play Policy,” (“Policy”) because although he underwent a rigorous training program, he could not pass the heat tolerance tests on numerous occasions. Class brought this action against Towson, claiming the decision violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, claiming that his inability to regulate his body temperature and susceptibility to heatstroke amounted to a “disability.” The district court ruled in favor of Class, and issued a permanent injunction prohibiting Towson from violating those two Acts. Towson appealed, claiming that the district court erred in holding that Class was disabled as defined by the Acts and that Class was “otherwise qualified” for the program.

The Fourth Circuit began by carefully reviewing the district court’s record, including testimony Dr. Kindschi, (“Kindschi”) the Team Physician, and Dr. Casa, (“Casa”) the Institute’s Chief Operating Officer. It then addressed Towson’s claim that the district court erred in finding that Class had a disability. Towson argued that although an impairment “that is episodic or in remission would qualify as a disability if it substantially “limits a major life activity when active,” Class’s limitations were not episodic or in remission. Towson also argued that intercollegiate football was not a major life activity. The Court carefully reviewed the statutory requirement for showing disability, including the definition of a “major life activity.” The Court specifically focused on the phrase “when active,” to determine the exact limits of the phrase, although declined to investigate whether the phrase extended to cover a condition that became active only under extreme conditions because it found that Class was not “otherwise qualified” to participate in the football program with accommodations.

In order to show that he was “otherwise qualified,” Class had to show the “academic and technical standards requisite to admission or participation in the school’s education program or activity,” with the term “technical standard” referring to all nonacademic admissions criteria. The Court acknowledged that it would allow a measure of deference to the school’s professional judgment when looking at whether an eligibility requirement was essential and had been met. Specifically, Towson contended that its Policy was an essential eligibility requirement, and the Court agreed that such a Policy that gave the Team Physician final clearance authority was consistent with NCAA guidelines and was a fair and reasonable method for Towson to employ. The Court thus concluded that the Towson’s requirement that a student-athlete needed to obtain the Team Physician’s clearance to return to play is an essential eligibility requirement. Nevertheless, Class argued that the specific decision to reject his proposed accommodations was unreasonable, because, he claimed, the decision was based on her feelings and not on medical or scientific evidence. In looking at whether the Team Physician’s opinion was reasonable, the Court pointed out that although the Team Physician was accorded some deference, the Court still needed to make sure that the decision was not a pretext for illegal discrimination. The Court specifically focused on whether the Team Physician and Towson reasonably considered the six proposed accommodations. Towson claimed that two of the accommodations were unreasonable, and although the Court dismissed some of Towson’s contentions, the Court accepted the contentions that the accommodations were not reasonable because they “would not effectively satisfy Towson University’s safety concerns” and “would require fundamental changes in the nature of its football program.” Looking at the record, the Court concluded that the Kindschi’s decision that Class couldn’t play football without substantial risk was well supported. Furthermore, the Court found that her opinion that the accommodation to monitor Class’s internal body temperature would not adequately meet the needs of health and safety was also supported. Finally, the Court agreed that the accommodations would fundamentally alter the nature of its football program, because it would substantially impinge on the Team Physician’s role.

For these reasons, the court vacated the injunction, and did not reach the challenges to the district court’s evidentiary rulings.

Full Opinion

Jennie Rischbieter