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To Accommodate or Not To Accommodate

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Come On, Let’s Be Reasonable

An interesting case came down earlier this week from the Minnesota Court of Appeals.  In Melanie Michael v. Education Management Corporation, a former sonography student brought a disability discrimination/failure to accommodate claim against Education Management Corporation d/b/a Argosy University (“Argosy”) under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The student suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”).  She did not disclose this Argosy when she applied to the school.  Her first and second semester came and went without incident as plaintiff passed all her classes.  In the student’s third semester, she took three courses.  Each course had a lecture and lab component.  Students must pass both components in order to pass the course.  The student passed both components of one of the course, but failed the lab component of the second and the lecture component of the third.  So, she failed both courses.

Thereafter, the student sought counseling and received a recommendation that she be given accommodations for her ADHD.  Specifically, her letter of accommodation stated that she be allowed:  (1) additional time to complete assignments; (2) a quiet location for testing; and (3) time-and-a-half for testing.

Over the following summer, the student retook the courses she failed.  She presented her letter of accommodation to the instructor (the same instructor that failed her the prior semester).  However, her instructor did not provide her with additional time to complete her assignments, nor did the instructor allow the student extra time for her lab work.  According to the opinion, this was due to Argosy’s policy against providing accommodations in lab work because it tries to simulate “real world” environments in its labs.  (Argosy did allow the student extra time to complete lecture exams and to take these exams in a separate room).  Despite not being extra time to complete her lab work, plaintiff passed both courses.

That fall, the student failed two additional courses (taught by the same instructor who had previously failed her).  After meeting the program chairperson, Argosy offered to allow the student to take her remaining course (including the two she failed) at no charge.  The student accepted, but after failing lab proficiency exam, she withdrew from the program.

Thereafter, the student filed a Complaint against Argosy claiming that it had violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act by not accommodating her disability.  She brought this appeal after the district court dismissed the claim.

The court of appeals noted that establish a claim for failure to accommodate, a party must prove three elements:  (1) that she is a qualified disabled person; (2) that respondent (Argosy) knew of her disability; and (3) that respondent failed to make reasonable accommodations.  It’s undisputed that the student was a qualified disabled person (ADHD) and that Argosy knew about her disability.  The primary issue whether or not Argosy provided her with a reasonable accommodation.

Argosy argued and the court of appeals agreed that Argosy was not required to accommodate the student’s request to do her lab work in a quiet environment. This would have been consistent with a “real world” environment as lab work is often done in fast-paced and noisy environment.  Specifically, the noted that, “that any other accommodation would have substantially altered the nature of the academic program.”

This finding is consistent employment-based accommodation claims where courts have held that a reasonable accommodation in the workplace does not mean “creating a new job.”  Here, the student was, in essence, asking Argosy to modify its lab program to accommodate her to such a degree that the main purpose of the program would be lost.

Generally, employers and educators are required make reasonable accommodations for their employees or students who have qualifying disabilities and make their employer and schools aware of them.  But the employers and schools are not necessarily required to accommodate to the extent that the duties of the job or the purpose of course will be substantially altered.

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