Law grads sue to ease bar test

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PORTLAND (AP) – Two law school graduates with learning disabilities have sued the state board that administers the bar examination, saying they should be given additional time and other accommodations they need in order to pass the test.

Bruce Montgomery, 62, of Georgetown, has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has failed the bar examination four times; Toby Jandreau, 30, of Portland, has a nonverbal learning disability and failed the exam after twice being denied extra time.

In their Cumberland County Superior Court lawsuit against the Board of Bar Examiners, Montgomery and Jandreau seek a preliminary injunction that would let them take the bar exam during the last week of February with accommodations that include additional time for both men and a private room for Montgomery.

“We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re just asking for a level playing field for these guys,” said Chad Hansen, the Disability Rights Center of Maine attorney who represents the two men. “The bar examiners have set a ridiculously impossible standard for these guys to meet.”

High schools and colleges regularly modify their testing procedures to accommodate students with learning disabilities, and a federal appeals court ruled in 1998 that bar examiners and other professional licensing boards have to make accommodations to people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and ADHD.

In the applicants’ requests, the bar examiners said their disabilities do not limit them enough to justify changing the test rules. The board said in letters to Montgomery and Jandreau that an applicant seeking accommodations must show a more “broad-based and substantial impact” that goes beyond the ability to perform on timed tests.

Hansen said that interpretation runs counter to court decisions, including a 2006 ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that called for a more inclusive definition of disability. The Maine Attorney General’s Office is expected to weigh in on the issue this week.

Maine conducts its bar examinations in February and July.

In July, 152 sat for the test and 76 percent passed, said Cheryl Cutliffe, the board’s executive director. Typically, accommodations are given to one or two people with disabilities at each session.

Montgomery, a former high school teacher, drug and alcohol abuse counselor, and real estate agent, enrolled in Franklin Pierce Law School in New Hampshire at age 55. He got through classes, but had trouble with timed tests.

“My mind was going a million miles a minute and I was thinking about 14 things at once,” he said. “I just fell apart.”

The lawsuit said an evaluation by a neuropsychologist found that Montgomery had “severe attentional difficulties” that make him unable to pass the bar examination, a multiple-choice and essay test given on successive days.

Jandreau said difficulties as an undergraduate with introductory courses that required him to feed back information led to an evaluation that found him to have a nonverbal learning disability, in which the right hemisphere of his brain was not functioning properly.

After the University of Maine School of Law made accommodations for him on its tests, his grades improved and he won a national award for his work in the legal aid clinic. He maintains that his inability to pass the bar examination without the accommodation doesn’t mean he would be a bad lawyer.

Jandreau cites his handling of difficult, high-pressure situations in his work, including once conducting interviews of armed drug dealers in a van. “If I can do that, I know I can handle a courtroom,” he said.

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