Duke Law students secure significant ruling for disabled inmates in Fourth Circuit

May 29, 2008Duke Law News

May 29, 2008 — Duke Law students in the School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic have secured a unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals in the Fourth Circuit that represents a significant victory for disabled inmates. Hannah Ludwin Polikov ’08 argued the case that she briefed and prepared along with her classmates, Brian Andrews, Christine Appah, Heather Harrison, and Lauren Tribble.

The students represented Virginia inmate, Michael Lee Spencer Sr., who suffers from a variety of physical disabilities, including neurological damage, involuntary movement disorder, cognitive dysfunction, and a mobility disability.

Spencer alleged mistreatment and denial of basic services while incarcerated, claiming more than 20 violations of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, among other areas. For example, he alleged he could not access the second-floor prison library and was challenged getting in and out of his assigned bunk.

The state argued it can’t be sued under the ADA because of state sovereign immunity; the district court granted the motion and dismissed Spencer’s entire case. While the students’ brief argued that the ADA does allow prisoner suits, they succeeded in persuading the appeals court that states can be sued under the Rehabilitation Act. The Fourth Circuit overturned the district court’s dismissal of Spencer’s Rehabilitation Act claims and remanded the case back to the lower court.

“It would have been great to set good precedent regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act, but I thought at the least we’d win on our Rehabilitation Act argument…which would be a good outcome for our client,” said Harrison.

“I think it’s an important case in terms of prisoners being able to sue for disabilities,” as the court essentially confirmed that disabled prisoners can sue under the Rehabilitation Act, said Erwin Chemerinksy, Alston and Bird Professor of Law and Political Science.

“The students wrote a terrific brief and Hannah argued a terrific case,” he added. Chemerinsky co-directs Duke Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic with Professor James Coleman, recently named to the John S. Bradway Chair. The clinic gives students first-hand insight into appellate practice.

Andrews said he and his teammates were confident with the strength of their brief. “I knew we would win on some grounds. We had pretty good facts, and the law seemed fairly on our side.”

Not only do they learn research and analysis techniques, they also get the opportunity to work with a team and build confidence. Andrews said writing a brief normally takes four to six weeks, but with a team, “we were able to do it in a week and a half.”

“I really learned the mechanics of the appellate process and its ability to change lives. I highly recommend this clinic to anyone interested in public service,” said Appah, who plans to work in the Legal Aid Society of New York.

“The decision was the culmination of months of intense legal work,” she continued. “As I worked, I often thought about how [Mr.Spencer] felt about his case, his overall health condition and his search for legal help. When I heard the decision, I was sure he would be relieved that he now had a second chance.”

Ludwin-Polikov, who argued the case on March 18, said, “Standing in front of the Fourth Circuit was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I had spent so long preparing for the argument and I was having such a good time conversing with the court that I was sad to see it end.” -C.H.

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