United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
L.W., a minor, by her parent and next friend BRIDGETT J., and BRIDGETT J., Plaintiffs,
ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, et al., Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MANISH S. SHAH, District Judge.
Plaintiffs L.W., a minor, and her mother, Bridgett J., sued the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), its then-acting director, and several of its employees after the employees temporarily removed L.W. from Bridgett's care and designated Bridgett as a perpetrator of child neglect in the agency's central register. On defendants' motion, the court dismissed from the litigation one of the employee defendants, Maria Miller, on the ground of quasi-judicial immunity. The court also dismissed Counts V and VI of the complaint, which alleged violations of Bridgett's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, respectively. DCFS and the DCFS director were terminated as parties to the case. Plaintiffs moved for reconsideration of the ruling on the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims, seeking also the reinstatement of DCFS and the DCFS director as defendants. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs' motion is granted.
Plaintiffs' allegations are set forth in the court's original ruling, , and are not reiterated in detail here. However, for the purpose of resolving the present motion, a brief review is helpful.
In July 2012, L.W. was a toddler living under the care of her mother, Bridgett J., a substitute teacher and licensed social worker. On July 17, DCFS received a hotline call in which the caller alleged that Bridgett suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, was not taking her medication, and was putting L.W. in danger. In response to the call, DCFS sent an investigator to Bridgett's home. The investigator spoke with Bridgett and her family. Bridgett told the investigator she had never been diagnosed with schizophrenia; her family, though, said that Bridgett had been behaving bizarrely. After the home visit, DCFS removed L.W. from Bridgett's care pursuant to the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act. After a few weeks, DCFS permitted Bridgett to have supervised contact with L.W.; but Bridgett did not regain full custody of her daughter until April 2013.
In the interim, DCFS investigators determined that Bridgett should be "indicated" in their central register as a perpetrator of child neglect. This determination was made pursuant to Allegation 60 of the DCFS regulatory code - a portion of the code that the Illinois courts have declared void ab initio. Bridgett appealed the "indicated" finding, which was ultimately reversed and expunged from the register by an administrative law judge. In the meantime, however, Bridgett was forced to take a leave of absence from her job as a substitute teacher.
Alleging a variety of constitutional violations, Bridgett and L.W. sued the DCFS employees responsible for removing L.W. from Bridgett's custody, and for "indicating" Bridgett as a perpetrator of child neglect. Bridgett also sued the same employees in their official capacities, as well as DCFS and its then-acting director (also in their official capacities), for violating Title II of the ADA (Count V) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Count VI). Bridgett claimed that DCFS had erroneously believed she was suffering from schizophrenia, a "disability" under both Acts, and had discriminated against her on the basis of that perceived disability. Defendants' motion to dismiss Counts V and VI was granted, and plaintiffs moved for reconsideration.
Title II of the ADA provides that "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity." 42 U.S.C. § 12132. Similar to the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act states that "[n]o otherwise qualified individual with a disability... shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance...." 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). In ruling on defendants' motion to dismiss, the court equated the causation standard for the ADA with the causation standard appearing in the Rehabilitation Act, and held that Bridgett's claim failed under the latter (and thus the former) statute. See  at 32-34. Plaintiffs argue that the ADA causation standard is not as stringent as the Rehabilitation Act standard, and so the court erred in treating the two as equivalent. See  at 6-8.
Plaintiffs are correct that, on its face, Title II of the ADA differs from its Section 504 counterpart. Title II requires only that plaintiffs prove discrimination "by reason of [their] disability, " 42 U.S.C. § 12132, while Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that plaintiffs prove discrimination " solely by reason of [their] disability, " 29 U.S.C. § 794(a) (emphasis added); see also Brumfield v. City of Chicago, 735 F.3d 619, 630 (7th Cir. 2013) (noting that the "solely by reason of" standard of causation is "unique to [the Rehabilitation Act] and [is] not present in the ADA" (citing Washington v. Ind. High Sch. Athletic Ass'n, 181 F.3d 840, 845 n. 6 (7th Cir. 1999))). Plaintiffs urge that the practical consequence of this distinction is that, while individuals alleging a Section 504 violation must prove that their disability was the sole reason for the alleged discrimination, those alleging ADA violations must prove only that their disability (or their perceived disability, as in this case) was "a motiving cause" of that discrimination. See  at 7 (citing Halpern v. Wake Forest Univ. Health Scis., 669 F.3d 454, 461-62 (4th Cir. 2012)). The motivating-cause standard is not the governing standard in this circuit.
Motivating-cause or motivating-factor claims arose in the Title VII context, where plaintiffs alleged that their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin had played "a motivating part" in an adverse employment decision. See Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 173-74 (2009). After the Supreme Court determined that employers could avoid Title VII liability by proving that they would have made the same decision, even if they had not taken into account the plaintiff's protected status, Congress amended the statue to explicitly permit recovery where an improper consideration was only "a motivating factor" in the adverse employment action. See id. at 174 (discussing Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 258 (1989); 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m)). Where, however, Congress had not amended the statutory language to include such mixed-motive phraseology, the Court determined that a but-for causation standard would apply. If, for example, the statute required that a plaintiff show discrimination "because of" or "by reason of" a particular characteristic, see id. at 176 (explaining that "because of" means "by reason of"), then the plaintiff must establish that, but for that characteristic, the defendant would not have acted as they did, see id. (discussing causation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. ) (citations omitted).
The ADA requires proof of discrimination "by reason of" the plaintiff's disability, and in the this circuit, it is the but-for causation standard - not the motivating-factor standard - that applies to Titles I and II of that statute. See Serwatka v. Rockwell Automation, Inc., 591 F.3d 957, 961-62 (7th Cir. 2010) ("There is no provision in the governing version of the ADA akin to Title VII's mixed-motive provision.") (citations omitted); Wis. Cmty. Servs., Inc. v. City of Milwaukee, 465 F.3d 737, 752 (7th Cir. 2006); see also Burrage v. United States, 134 S.Ct. 881, 889 (2014). Thus, to prevail on her ADA claim here, Bridgett must demonstrate that, but for DCFS's perception that Bridgett suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, DCFS would not have interfered with her custody of L.W. or have "indicated" Bridgett for child neglect. But this is not to say that any decision ultimately ascribable to Bridgett's (perceived) disability is foundation enough for an ADA claim. Bridgett must show that her disability was the "immediate cause" of DCFS's actions. Siefken v. Vill. of Arlington Heights, 65 F.3d 664, 666 (7th Cir. 1995) ("[W]e have never held that mere but for' causation is sufficient under the ADA...." (citing Despears v. Milwaukee Cnty., 63 F.3d 635, 636 (7th Cir. 1995); Hedberg v. Ind. Bell Tel. Co., Inc., 47 F.3d 928, 933-34 (7th Cir. 1995))) (emphasis added); cf. Wis. Cmty. Servs., 465 F.3d at 752 (requiring in Title II modification cases a "showing that the reason for [the plaintiff's] deprivation is his disability") (emphasis added).
Accordingly, while Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act differ somewhat in their wording, claims under the respective statutes are "functionally identical, " Wagoner v. Lemmon, 778 F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing Jaros v. Ill. Dep't of Corr., 684 F.3d 667, 672 (7th Cir. 2012)). To succeed on either claim, Bridgett must establish: (1) that she is a qualified individual with a disability; and (2) that, because of her disability, she was denied the benefits of a program or activity of a public entity, or was otherwise subjected to discrimination, see 29 U.S.C. § 794(a); 42 U.S.C. § 12132. ("Because of her disability, " as just explained, means that the disability was the immediate cause of the discrimination or denial of benefits.)
There is no dispute that paranoid schizophrenia is a disability within the meaning of either Act, and defendants do not argue that Bridgett is not a "qualified individual" as required by both statutes. At the motion-to-dismiss stage, I assume to be true Bridgett's allegation that defendants perceived her to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia when they "indicated" her as a perpetrator of child neglect and removed L.W. from her care. Being perceived as having a disability is the same as having a disability under both the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(C) (defining "disability" to include "being regarded as having such an impairment"); 29 U.S.C. § 705(20)(B) (adopting the meaning of "individual ...