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Sinapi v. Rhode Island Board of Bar Examiners

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 11, 2018

ANTHONY E. SINAPI, Plaintiff, Appellee, Cross-Appellant,
v.
RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF BAR EXAMINERS; DAVID A. WOLLIN, individually and in his official capacity as member of the RI Board of Bar Examiners; MELLISSA K. BURNETT TESTA, individuallyand in her official capacity as member of the RI Board of BarExaminers; MARC B. DECOF, individually and in his officialcapacity as member of the RI Board of Bar Examiners; THOMASDICKINSON, individually and in his official capacity as memberof the RI Board of Bar Examiners; CARLY B. IAFRATE, individuallyand in her official capacity as member of the RI Board of BarExaminers; DEBORAH M. TATE, individually and in her officialcapacity as member of the RI Board of Bar Examiners; ADAM M.RAMOS, individually and in his official capacity as member of the RI Board of Bar Examiners; MICHAEL A. ST. PIERRE, individually and in his official capacity as member of the RI Board of Bar Examiners; MICHAEL A. URSILLO, individually and inhis official capacity as member of the RI Board of BarExaminers; CYNTHIA WILSON-FRIAS, individually and in herofficial capacity as member of the RI Board of Bar Examiners, Defendants, Appellants, Cross-Appellees, C. LEONARD O'BRIEN, individually and in his official capacity as member of the RI Board of Bar Examiners, Defendant.

          APPEALS FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF RHODE ISLAND Hon. John J. McConnell, Jr., U.S. District Judge

          Michael W. Field, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Rebecca Tedford Partington, Assistant Attorney General, was on brief, for appellant/cross-appellee.

          Richard A. Sinapi for appellee/cross-appellant.

          Before Lynch and Lipez, Circuit Judges, and Ponsor, District Judge [*]

          PONSOR, DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Anthony Sinapi, an individual with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety, sought certain accommodations to assist him in taking the Rhode Island bar exam. The Rhode Island Board of Bar Examiners (the Board) denied his request and, on review, the Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court denied his petition for reversal of the Board's decision. Immediately following this denial, Sinapi filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island against the members of the Board.[1] The district court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) requiring the Board to permit Sinapi the requested accommodations. In further proceedings, Sinapi filed an amended complaint, which the court ultimately dismissed, and a motion for attorneys' fees, which the court allowed.

         These cross appeals followed. The Board seeks reversal of the attorneys' fees award; Sinapi objects to the district court's dismissal of his amended complaint. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the award of attorneys' fees and affirm the dismissal of the amended complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The parties do not dispute the relevant facts and procedural history. Anthony E. Sinapi suffers from ADHD and anxiety. During college and law school he received certain testing accommodations, such as extra time and low-distraction examination environments. As Sinapi prepared to take the bar exams in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, he sought similar accommodations, specifically fifty percent extra time, a distraction-reduced testing environment, and permission to take prescribed medication in the testing room.

         The Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners initially denied Sinapi's request but relented and approved the accommodations after Sinapi submitted additional materials. The Rhode Island Board submitted Sinapi's request for accommodations to an impartial medical examiner for evaluation and, on July 16, 2015, notified Sinapi by letter that his request for accommodations was denied. The Board's reason, the letter stated, was that Sinapi's request "was not supported by the medical documentation provided."

         Rule 4(b) of the Rhode Island Board of Bar Examiners Rules of Practice Governing Admission on Examination states that requests for reconsideration of Board decisions are "discouraged." Instead, disappointed applicants are directed to file a petition for review with the Rhode Island Supreme Court within thirty days of receiving the denial.

         Despite this direction, Sinapi contacted the Board's Bar Administrator on July 16, 2015, to request reconsideration of the no-accommodation decision. The next day, July 17, 2015, the Board's counsel contacted Sinapi by phone. In the conversation that followed, Sinapi pressed for clarification of the reasons supporting the Board's decision and pointed to the contrary decision of the Massachusetts Board.

         By letter dated Monday, July 20, 2015, the Board's counsel advised Sinapi that he could petition the Rhode Island Supreme Court for a review of the Board's denial. In addition, the letter advised Sinapi that, with submission of a valid prescription, he could bring his medication into the examination room.

         On July 22, 2015, six days before the Rhode Island bar exam, Sinapi filed an Emergency Petition for Review and Summary Reversal of Denial of Testing Accommodations and Access to Documentation in Support of Denial, with the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The following day, July 23, 2015, Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell heard the petition. On July 24, 2015, Chief Justice Suttell granted Sinapi's request for access to the basis for the Board's rejection of the request for accommodation (the medical evaluation), but otherwise denied the petition. His order, dated July 24, 2015, stated as follows:

This matter came before the Duty Justice on an emergency petition seeking review and summary reversal of a decision of the Board of Bar Examiners (the Board) denying the petitioner special testing accommodations for the July 2015 Rhode Island bar examination and access to the Board's independent medical evaluation of his requested accommodation. After carefully considering the arguments of counsel, the Duty Justice hereby directs that the following Order shall enter: 1. The petitioner's request for emergency relief is hereby denied. 2. The petitioner's request for access to the independent medical evaluation is hereby granted.

         That same day, Friday, July 24, 2015, Sinapi filed this suit against the Board in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island. He sought both monetary damages for disability discrimination under federal law and a TRO compelling the Board to permit him certain bar exam accommodations, including a reduced margin of twenty-five percent additional time and a testing environment with limited distractions. In his request for the TRO, Sinapi emphasized equitable considerations, most prominently the lack of harm to the Board and the corresponding severe harm he would suffer if he were compelled to sit for the imminent exam without the requested accommodations. Sinapi even offered to stipulate that he would retake the exam if he passed it with the requested accommodations but was found not to be entitled to these accommodations in subsequent proceedings on the merits of his claims.

         Events following Sinapi's July 24, 2015, filing moved at a headlong pace. The Board filed its opposition on Sunday, July 26. On Monday, July 27, Sinapi filed a reply. The district court held a hearing later that day, with the bar exam looming on the 28th.

         After hearing argument, the district court granted Sinapi's motion for a TRO and ordered that he be permitted to sit for the bar exam the following day with the accommodations he sought. The district court's decision emphasized the harm to Sinapi and the balance of harm weighing in favor of him as compared to the Board. In finding that Sinapi "certainly would be irreparably harmed" without the accommodations, the TRO noted that because Sinapi had registered to sit for the multistate portion of the bar exam in Rhode Island, with his score being applicable both in Rhode Island and in Massachusetts, the denial of accommodations in Rhode Island would undermine his chances for success in both states.

         In addition to irreparable harm, the district court also found "based on the limited record before it" that Sinapi had demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. In making this finding, the court identified particularly the failure of the Board to consider the accommodations afforded to Sinapi in Massachusetts.

         On July 28, 2015, Sinapi sat for the Rhode Island bar exam with the accommodations of twenty-five percent extra time and a distraction-reduced testing environment.[2]

         On August 27, 2015, the Board filed an appeal of the grant of the TRO with this court, arguing among other things that the district court lacked jurisdiction to enter the TRO. On October 13, 2015, this court dismissed the Board's appeal as moot because Sinapi had by then already sat for the Rhode Island bar exam with accommodations, and thus the district court's order "ha[d] been irrevocably executed." We added, "Even assuming that we ...


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