United States District Court, D. Maryland
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
For Gavin Class, Plaintiff: Andreas Lundstedt, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Andrew M. Dansicker, Hunt Valley, MD; Andrew Marc Dansicker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Dansicker Law Firm, Hunt Valley, MD; Andrew L Jiranek, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jiranek Company PA, Towson, MD; Latane James Mason, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jiranek Company, Towson, MD.
For Towson University, Defendant: Kathleen Evelyn Wherthey, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the Attorney General of Maryland, Educational Affairs Division, Baltimore, MD.
Richard D. Bennett, United States District Judge.
On August 12, 2013, Gavin Class suddenly collapsed on the field while practicing as a member of the Towson University football team. Receiving excellent immediate attention from the training staff of the team, he was rushed to the nearest hospital. He was moved to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center where it was determined that he had suffered a heat stroke with liver failure and was facing a life-threatening situation. Ultimately, he was able to survive by receiving a liver transplant. After two years of intense medical and physical rehabilitation, he has achieved an amazing recovery. His doctors, who specialize in liver disease and liver transplants, have cleared him to once again play football. An expert from the Korey Stringer Institute, the nationally recognized center for the study of heat stroke and heat illness, has also cleared him to return to play. Gavin Class has overcome almost every obstacle in his return to the football field. However, he now faces his last hurdle: the opposition of the Towson University team physician, who while qualified in sports medicine for the past five years, has no expertise in liver illness or heat injury.
Class, still a student at the University, has turned to this Court for relief. He contends that the University has discriminatorily refused to provide reasonable accommodations that would allow him to participate in the 2015 football season, in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12133
(" ADA" ). Class seeks an injunction against the University that would allow him to fully participate in Towson University's football program. For the reasons that follow, Judgment will be entered in his favor against Towson University. The University will be permanently enjoined from violating his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by prohibiting him from participating in the football program as the result of medical concerns related to his status as a transplant recipient and heat stroke victim. The University shall be ordered to permit him to return to active status as a full participant in its football program.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Class filed the present action on May 28, 2015, alleging that Towson University has refused to clear him to play football in the upcoming season or to make any " reasonable accommodations" that would permit him to return to full participation. See Pl.'s Compl., ECF No. 1. He claims that by refusing to make such accommodations, Towson University is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12133 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Specifically, as the Plaintiff in this action, he levies three claims. First, he alleges that the University has excluded him from fully participating in the football program solely because of his disability, thereby excluding him from participating in, denying him the benefits of, and otherwise discriminating against him in its facilities, services, programs or activities in violation of the Rehabilitation Act (Count I). Id. ¶ ¶ 34-45. Second, he asserts that the Towson has failed to meet its obligations to provide him with equal opportunities as other students without disabilities by excluding him from the football team and denying him the benefits of, and otherwise discriminating against him in its facilities, services, programs and activities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12133 (Count II). Id. ¶ ¶ 46-57. Along with his Complaint, Class also filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction (ECF No. 2).
This Court held a scheduling teleconference on June 11, 2015. During that call, the University indicated that it intended to file a motion to dismiss addressing some of the legal issues presented by Class' claims. The parties also agreed that an expedited schedule was preferable as the University's football team usually begins practice in early August. Accordingly, the Court established a briefing schedule and set in a hearing on the Motion to Dismiss for June 30, 2015. Additionally, by agreement of the parties, this Court ordered that Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction (ECF No. 2) be treated as a Motion for a Permanent Injunction consistent with the Complaint and merits of this case. See Order dated June 11, 2015, ECF No. 9. Finally, the Court scheduled an evidentiary hearing on the merits for July 14, 2015 to determine whether a permanent injunction was warranted.
At the June 30, 2015 hearing on the Motion to Dismiss, this Court entertained arguments about the legal merits of Class' substantive claims. After considering the parties' presentations, this Court denied the Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 11) for reasons stated on the record in open court. See Order dated June 30, 2015, ECF No. 21. Accordingly, this Court conducted a one-day hearing--akin to a bench trial--on July 14, 2015 to determine whether Class was entitled to a permanent injunction under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.
II. Findings of Fact
A. Class' Exertional Heat Stroke and Subsequent Medical Procedures
During a Towson University football practice on August 12, 2013, Gavin Class suddenly collapsed on the field during conditioning drills. The athletic training staff on the field quickly submerged him in cold water and dialed 911. Class was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with exertional heat stroke and was observed to have a variety of medical complications including liver failure. Class was ultimately stabilized long enough to obtain a liver donor and receive a liver transplant.
Class' recovery from the transplant operation was hindered by several complications. Class suffered from bleeding and an infection after the surgery, and he also has a defect in his abdominal wall. Additionally, Class suffered from post-transplant lympohoproliferative disease, which is a complication of organ transplantation that involves the growth of precancerous, abnormal cells.
Due to the severity of both his original illness and subsequent complications, Class' rehabilitation was a long and arduous process. He was unable to stand on his own until several weeks into his hospital stay, and he was only able to remain on his feet for a matter of seconds. By the time he returned home (about six weeks after his initial hospitalization), Gavin Class was able to move around his house using a walker. He eventually transitioned to a cane, then to some unassisted walking. By December of 2013, he was able to perform some light jogging. He began other rehabilitation work, including light lifting and banded exercises, and in the spring of 2014, he began running and footwork drills with a personal strength coach. By October of 2014, he was lifting and running with the University's strength coach. In short, this young man was making a remarkable recovery.
Dr. William Hutson, a recognized expert in liver disease and liver transplant, oversaw Class' care at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Dr. Hutson continues to see him every three months as part of his continuing care. Dr. Hutson testified that Gavin Class has had an amazing recovery and that he is able to return to playing football. Dr. Hutson has recommended, however, that Class wear a protective padding to protect his abdominal wall.
B. Testing for Thermo-Regulation by the Korey Stringer Institute
The Korey Stringer Institute (" the Institute" ) at the University of Connecticut was founded in the wake of the death of Korey Stringer, a football player in the National Football League who died after suffering a heat stroke. The Institute researches issues related to heat stroke and heat illness
and conducts educational and advocacy activities around the country. The NFL remains a corporate partner with the Institute, which has worked with a number of sports teams and athletic programs as well as the United States military with respect to heat illness issues. Additionally, the Institute also provides testing services, including heat testing services testing for individuals recovering from heat stroke or heat illness.
According to the testimony of the Institute's Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Douglas Casa, the Institute was first contacted about Class' case by an athletic trainer at the University during Class' rehabilitation process. Over the span of several months, the Institute conducted several Heat Tolerance Tests on Class to evaluate his ability to thermoregulate (i.e., his body's ability to self-regulate its temperature during exertion) which were paid for by the University.
The first test was conducted in August of 2014. The test required that Class walk for 120 minutes in 104-degree heat with 40% humidity while maintaining a rectal temperature of 38.5-degrees Celsius (or 101.3-degrees Fahrenheit) or lower and a heart rate of less than 155 beats per minute. This first test, however, was cut short after about 70 minutes due to the fact that Class' temperature exceeded the permissible threshold. See Def.'s Ex. 2.
Class retook the test in February of 2015. During the February test, Class' body effectively thermo-regulated under the test conditions, demonstrating that Class was " able to sustain low intensity exercise in a hot environment for 120 minutes." Pl.'s Ex. 3; Def.'s Ex. 2; see id. (" Based on your measures of heart rate and rectal temperature in your current level of fitness, you successfully demonstrated the ability to thermoregulate as expected at this intensity in these conditions." ). Additionally, the test summary report suggested that Class initially " only exercise in cool environments ranging from low to high intensity (including football practices), and only low to moderate intensity in warmer environments." Id. The report also recommended further testing before any " intense conditioning that is done in a warm to hot environment." Id. Finally, the report contained precautionary suggestions:
1) Perform low to high intensity exercise in cool environments
2) The introduction of workouts performed in the heat should gradually work up in duration and frequency over the course of 2-4 weeks, following a specific heat acclimatization program. This is standard policy for any introduction of athletes to exercise in the heat.
3) Ideally, we would suggest you monitor your body temperature when performing new/unique exercise or conditioning sessions, especially when done in warm to hot environments. This may represent a total of 3-4 weeks of the year (i.e. the first 1-2 weeks of spring football and the first 1-2 weeks of pre-season in August), as these are generally the riskiest times of the year for heat illness. Monitoring would help to guarantee that your participation is safe and confirm that there is no need for exercise modification.
4) It is important to continue to monitor your fluid needs, as they will increase with warm weather exposure and an increase in your fitness. Matching your fluid losses as you did in this test will be a great tool to help regulate your temperature during exercise.
5) All exercise progression should be done at the discretion and direct observation of a medical professional.
It is always important to monitor athletes for signs and symptoms of illness and modify practices based on extreme weather conditions.
Class underwent a third, highly rigorous test in June of 2015. The test involved running in 104-degree heat and 40% humidity; in order to pass, he needed to maintain a body temperature of 39.5-degrees Celsius (103.1-degree Fahrenheit) or lower while running 1.6 miles in nineteen minutes. See Pl.'s Ex. 3; Def.'s Ex. 2. Dr. Casa of the Institute described Class' results as " stellar" at the hearing. Class ran 4.25 miles over a period of fifty minutes. See id. The test summary report states that Class " demonstrated the ability to thermoregulate as expected." Id. As before, the report also included recommendations about Class' future activities:
At this point we suggest that you continue to participate fully in summer conditioning workouts and fully participate with regularly scheduled football ...