Student Experience

During the spring 2008 semester, Duke Law students in the School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic secured a unanimous ruling — a significant victory for disabled inmates — from a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals in the Fourth Circuit. 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.

The state argued that it can’t be sued under the ADA because of state sovereign immunity and 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.

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.

“Standing in front of the Fourth Circuit was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life,” Ludwin Polikov said. “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.”

Appah said she would recommend the clinic to anyone interested in public service. “I really learned the mechanics of the appellate process and its ability to change lives,” she said.

“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.”