When it came time to take the bar exam, Bartlett petitioned the New York Board of Law Examiners for special arrangements such as unlimited test time, access to food and drink, a private room, and the use of an amanuensis to record her answers. But acting on the advice of its own expert, who reported that Bartlett's test data did not support a diagnosis of a reading disorder, the board refused Bartlett's demands. Bartlett took the exam three times without any special accommodations, failing each time. Then, in 1993, she sued the board.
In 1997 Judge Sonia Sotomayer ruled in Bartlett's favor, ordering the board to provide all the accommodations she had requested, along with $12,500 in compensatory damages. The judge did not challenge the board's contention that Bartlett was neither impaired nor disabled, at least not in the traditional sense. However, she declared that Bartlett's skills ought not to be compared to those of an "average person in the general population," but rather to an "average person with comparable training, skills and abilities"—in other words, to other aspiring lawyers. An "essential question" in the case, said the judge, was whether the plaintiff would "have a substantial impairment in performing [the] job" of a practicing lawyer. If the answer to this question was "yes," the judge reasoned, then Bartlett had a protected right to work in her chosen career. Judge Sotomayer ruled that Bartlett's "inability to be accommodated on the bar exam—and her accompanying impediment to becoming bar-admitted—exclude her from a 'class of jobs' under the ADA."
To buttress her point, the judge cited Bartlett's poor performance during a courtroom demonstration of her reading skills. "Plaintiff read haltingly and laboriously, whispering and sounding out some words more than once under her breath before she spoke them aloud," the judge recalled. "She made one word identification error, reading the word 'indicted' as 'indicated.' "