General Counsel’s Corner: Professor’s ADA Lawsuit Against Law School [Higher-Ed/College Athletics Best Practices Alert (First Quarter 2014)]
Author: Michael L. Buckner, Esquire (Shareholder)
A lawsuit filed in an Illinois federal district court on December 31, 2013, by a former law school professor demonstrates why colleges and universities should research and consider, as well as document efforts to identify, all possible accommodations for disability-related workplace restrictions. According to the lawsuit against John Marshall Law School (Chicago, Illinois), professor Joel Cornwell was placed on administrative suspension after the faculty member “lost his temper in class and chastised two students for being unprepared.” The lawsuit alleges the law school violated Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C. §12101, et seq.) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. §701, et seq.) for discrimination based on a disability. Cornwell alleges the law school failed to accommodate his depression and Asperger’s syndrome when he was placed on administrative suspension after the classroom incident. Cornwell’s lawsuit also included claims under Illinois law for violations of the professor’s contractual right to academic freedom and infliction of emotional distress.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications and governmental activities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability.
According to the complaint, Cornwell contends he experienced issues after he criticized maintenance workers for not rearranging timely the furniture in his classroom. After the incident, Cornwell alleges the law school reprimanded him for “incivility” and characterized “him as a threat to himself or others.”
Cornwell was issued a “non-disciplinary” admonishment. The law school also suspended the professor “from further teaching assignments.” Further, the law school mandated Cornwell to “submit to a ‘fitness of duty assessment’ by an outside forensic examiner.” In a report, the forensic examiner confirmed the professor “suffers from a ‘longstanding nonverbal learning disorder (i.e., Asperger's syndrome)’” and depression. Further, the report determined Cornwell was “conditionally fit to return to his position” provided the professor “undergo a brief anger management course and continue with his ongoing treatment with his long-standing provider.” [Note: The lawsuit contends Cornwell “has for many years regularly seen a mental health provider.”]
Cornwell requested the law school provide an accommodation for the Asperger's syndrome “diagnosed by the forensic examiner.” In response, the law school informed Cornwell: “Based on legal advice and the record, the school does not believe you have a disability recognized under the law and therefore cannot give you a formal accommodation.”
Cornwell subsequently chastised two students who he contends were unprepared for class. The professor charges the law school admonished him for his actions and required the professor to read an apology to the class. In addition, Cornwell alleges the law school placed him on administrative leave and banned him from campus.
A college or university should use this lawsuit to initiate a review of how it addresses an employee’s claim of disability-related workplace restrictions. Specifically, under the close guidance of university counsel, an institution is best served to engage the employee to explore all possible accommodations for the alleged disability-related workplace restrictions. If the talks fail and the employee later sues the institution, the institution can use its good faith efforts to demonstrate compliance with the ADA.
The lawsuit can be reviewed at: http://images.abajournal.com/main_images/CornwellSuit.pdf.
Sources: Peter T. Tschanz, "Play it safe: always remember to consider potential disability-related accommodations for workplace restrictions," Lexology (Jan. 16. 2014), available at: http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=78f68159-ebf2-4de4-8eea-9afa1a00f022 (visited Jan. 19, 2014); Elie Mystal, "Law Prof Seeks ADA Accommodation To Continue Yelling At Students," Above the Law (Jan. 10, 2014), available at: http://abovethelaw.com/2014/01/law-prof-seeks-ada-accommodation-to-continue-yelling-at-students/#more-294554 (visited Jan. 19. 2014).
Contact Michael L. Buckner (954-941-1844; firstname.lastname@example.org) for additional information on higher-education legal issues.