Doctoral Student’s Termination from Program Was Not Disability Discrimination

By February 27, 2015April 29th, 2015News

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs Illinois, recently affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a doctoral student’s disability discrimination lawsuit. The appellate court in Novak v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University, 2015 WL 525826 (7th Cir. 2015) agreed with the trial court that the school “bent over backwards” to accommodate the student, Patrick Novak, and held that Novak failed to show that his professors engaged in anything other than a “bona fide professional” assessment of his work.

Novak alleged he was terminated from his doctoral program in Curriculum and Instruction at Southern Illinois University because of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Novak suffers from PTSD and, as a result, SIU provided him multiple accommodations throughout the course of his undergraduate and doctoral programs, most notably during his doctoral preliminary examinations, which consisted of three segments. He passed the first segment, a timed examination, with an extra time accommodation. The following year, he was given failing marks for the second segment (another timed examination) and the third segment (an untimed take-home assignment). He was not terminated from his program at that time, though department rules permitted dismissal of a candidate who failed two segments.

In the following fall, Novak requested and received the following accommodations: the opportunity to review his failing exam results; an explanation of why his responses were insufficient; extra time to complete the second segment; the opportunity to meet with an instructor to prepare to retake the exams; and an opportunity to retake the exams. Novak passed the second segment on his second attempt. However, after he failed segment three on each of three additional attempts, even with the accommodations, he was terminated from the program.

The court noted that, in order to state a claim for disability discrimination under Section 504 or the ADA, Novak needed to show that he: (1) suffered from a disability; (2) was qualified to participate in the program in question; and (3) was excluded or denied a benefit on the basis of his disability. If a plaintiff demonstrates those elements, the defendant must then show that it has a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action. Then the plaintiff is responsible for demonstrating that the offered reason is mere pretext or the plaintiff’s case will not survive.

The only element in dispute was whether or not the plaintiff was excluded or denied a benefit on the basis of his disability. To prove that element, Novak needed to either present direct evidence that he was discriminated against on the basis of his disability, or present indirect evidence of discrimination by demonstrating that nondisabled students were treated more favorably.

Under the direct approach, Novak pointed out lapses in the professors’ assessment methodology which may have resulted in unfairness. However, the court held that this was not evidence of disability discrimination noting that Novak was given multiple opportunities and assistance beyond those required by department policy.