Whether the New York State Education Department (VESID), pursuant to the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the New York Vocational Rehabilitation Law, is obligated to reimburse Appellant Murphy for some of the costs of her law school degree.
No. Under the circumstances of the case, Appellant is not entitled to be reimbursed for her law school education. VESID satisfied its obligations by aiding Appellant to the educational level that allowed her to attain maximum employment.
Due to a physically debilitating accident, Appellant was entitled to a special benefits program as an individual with disabilities. This federal program, funded under the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is administered in New York through the state Education Department's Office (VESID). To determine appropriate vocational rehabilitation needs and benefits, pertinent law requires each enrollee to agree with VESID to an Individualized Written Rehabilitation Program (IWRP). Appellant's IWRP indicated that her short term goal was to work in the area of legal services and her long term goal was to become an attorney. Thus, VESID agreed to pay for Appellant to finish college, with the goal of Appellant later working in a law related field while saving money for law school. However, after submitting the IWRP and before graduating from college, Appellant was accepted at Syracuse University law school.
VESID rejected Appellant's request that it pay for her law school education. Its decision was upheld at the administrative hearing and the Deputy Commissioner of Education declined to review this decision. Appellant then sought relief in the courts through a combined Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action. The trial court found in favor of VESID, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal and held that under the circumstances of the case, Appellant is not entitled to be reimbursed for her law school education. VESID satisfied its obligations by aiding Appellant to the educational level that allowed her to attain maximum employment. The Court reasoned that the plain language of the applicable statute indicates that the legislative goal is to empower eligible individuals with the opportunity to access their maximum employment, not to provide individuals with idealized preferences for actual optimal employment. Furthermore, since Appellant only sought financial assistance for law school, and not other assistance related to her disability, such as note taking services, she was as employable as a non-disabled person. In addition, VESID should have the authority to make final decisions regarding an applicant's goals.
Prepared by the liibulletin-ny Editorial Board.